Amid coronavirus, Iraq aims for a higher politics

A prime minister-designate tries to form a government that lives up to young people’s democratic ideals – and protects Iraqis from the virus outbreak.

Adnan Al-Zurfi, seen here in 2005 as governor of Najaf, and now prime minister-designate of Iraq.

With courage and elbow-bump caution, lawmakers around the world are trying to carry on their work during the pandemic. The machinery of government still needs the grease of politics. This is particularly true in Iraq where a 17-year attempt to establish a stable, secular parliamentary democracy in the heart of the Arab world shows new promise.

For six months Iraq’s politics has been in turmoil following grassroots protests. Young people, still camped out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, are seeking corruption-free governance and an end to a system that divvies up power by religion and ethnicity. In addition, Iraq continues to be dragged into Iran’s maneuvers for influence in the Middle East and the United States’ response to it. In January, the U.S. assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in retaliation for Iran’s targeting of American soldiers.

On Tuesday, Iraq’s president named a candidate as prime minister-designate to form a government in parliament. He is Adnan al-Zurfi, a member of parliament who once lived in Detroit and is a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen. He is also a former governor of the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. During his tenure, he earned a reputation for integrity, delivering basic services and standing up to Shiite militants.

More important, Mr. Zurfi supports the protesters’ aims of inclusive, secular rule and an end to Iranian meddling. About 60% of Iraqis are 27 or younger. They are more globally aware than their elders. They might need a leader who has lived abroad and understands such concepts as rule of law and peaceful transfers of power.

Iraq’s unstable government now faces the task of containing the coronavirus, not to mention the effects of declining oil prices on a country highly dependent on oil exports. Mr. Zurfi has until April 16 to persuade factions in parliament to accept him as prime minister. The virus crisis puts the country’s divisions in a new perspective. Politics must give way to clean and effective governance in order to, as Mr. Zurfi puts it, “achieve the aspirations of the Iraqis.”

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