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Iraq’s slippery politics to test new prime minister

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By Taylan Cokenoglu

Edited by Harry Miller Canada News Media

ISTANBUL

Appointment of Adnan al Zurfi as Iraq’s new prime minister has evoked mixed reactions in the country.

After months of deadlock, withdrawal of candidacy by Mohammed Allawi and failure of rival parties to zero in on a successor to Abdul Mahdi, who had resigned in December following protests, President Barham Saleh finally handed the baton to Zurfi, a former governor of Najaf province.

He was appointed governor by Paul Bremer in 2004 who led the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S.

While Kurdish, Sunni and a section of Shiite politicians have welcomed the move, other Shiite political blocs supported by Iran have severely objected to the appointment. They have already begun lobbying to block his path.

The main political actors in Iraq, the protesters on the streets, who brought down Mahdi government, the U.S. and Iran have responded differently at this new development.

Since Allawi withdrew his candidature early this month, seven important Shiite parties representing in the parliament were deliberating to choose the new candidate. Three of them could not agree on the choice offered by other parties. President Salih ultimately took the matter in his hand and zeroed in on Zurfi, one of the names which were suggested to him for the post earlier.

Hailing from the southern province of Najaf, Zurfi was imprisoned by the Saddam Hussain regime after the suppression of rebellion launched against his Baath Party in 1991. He, however, soon escaped from the prison and took the flight to Saudi Arabia, where he spent two years in a refugee camp.

In 1993, he migrated to the U.S. attained its citizenship and lived there till 2004. He returned Baghdad, a year after President George Bush invaded the country and ousted Saddam Hussain from power. He was soon appointed governor of his home province Najaf. He later held senior positions at the Interior Ministry from 2006-2009 and served as the governor of Najaf once again from 2009-2015.

Kurdish, Sunni groups supportive but cautious

Even while welcoming the appointment, Kurdish and Sunni groups have remained cautious. Top Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr refused to comment but said the issue concerns only to the Iraqi people.

In other words, Sadr called on Iran and the U.S. not to interfere in the process. He did not oppose Zurfi’s candidature in principle. But it is worth considering that Sadr, whose political maneuvers are unpredictable and is known for switching sides, may have made a surprise choice.

Ammar al-Hakim — cleric and politician who led the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, from 2009-2017 – also did not oppose Adnan Zurfi as a name. But he criticized the appointment process, questioning procedures and demanded consensus.

As for the former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is in the same political coalition as Zurfi, is one of the prominent players supporting the new prime minister.

The Iran-backed Fatah Coalition which includes another former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other parties has objected to the appointment, describing it “unconstitutional”. They have charged that Zurfi was a “man of the U.S.”

Iranian-backed political groups have also indicted President Salih for choosing Zurfi.

Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of Fatah Coalition, described Salih’s decision to appoint Zurfi as illegal and provocative. He said Salih will have to bear serious consequences of his decision.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) — Iranian-backed Shiite political party- leader Kays al-Hazali said Salih has endangered the peace. Another member of the Coalition Badr asked MPs to overthrow Salih for breaching the constitution.

But Salih has stood by his decision, saying he had appointed the new prime minister with the approval of the Federal Court. He said the charges that his decision was illegal is unwarranted.

Zurfi allergic to pro-Iranian militias

Their criticism stems from the fact that Zurfi has been allergic to pro-Iranian militias when he was governor of Najaf. It is also no secret that he wants Hashdi al-Shabi, a Shiite mobilization force that fought Daesh/ISIS in the north to be fully integrated into the Iraqi army. Indeed, in his statement, as soon as he was appointed, he hinted that the group should only operate under the state orders. Therefore, it seems clear that the militias, which have transnational goals, do not like Zurfi.

Further, the new prime minister in the past has severely criticized Iran’s influence over Iraq. He has also called for having a balanced foreign policy. All political parties know that he encourages better relations with the U.S.

Zurfi supported U.S. presence in Iraq

Even after the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani head of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard along with Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Zurfi had favored continued U.S. presence in the country. Therefore, Zurfi will be a serious obstacle to the goals of the Iranian-backed militias.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that these militias got political prominence after the weakening of the Islamic Invitation Party and the defeat of the ISIS/Daesh. The political branches of the Iranian-backed militia have achieved a decision-making position in the Shiite political bloc following the 2018 elections. Therefore, the exclusion of these political formations in a possible Zurfi government would also mean their loss of political face. Of course, in such a case, it should not be forgotten that groups owing allegiance to Muqtada Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim will gain prominence and become politically decisive.

Protests against the government, which have been going on for nearly six months, have plunged Iraq’s political elite into the biggest political crisis. The anti-government demonstrations forced Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign. Therefore, the political determination and the convictions of the young masses has become a new sociological reality that the political forces cannot ignore. In this respect, the attitude of the protesters regarding Zurfi’s candidacy is critical.

Protesters divided on Zurfi’s appointment

A section of protesters has rejected Zurfi. They consider him representing the status quo. But it is also a fact, that Zurfi’s candidature was not opposed as vehemently as that of Muhammed Allawi.

It is known that the number of protesters is rooting for Zurfi and say, that he should be given a chance. Some of them believe that it would cut down Iranian influence in the government.

Ayatollah Sistani — one of the most powerful and influential clerics and spiritual leaders of Iraqi Shia Muslims – who supported peaceful protests against the government has not yet expressed his opinion on Zurfi’s appointment.

While the appointment of the new prime minister in Iraq’s internal issue but is closely linked to the power struggle between the U.S. and Iran in the region. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and David Schenker, head of the Near East Office have conditionally supported Zurfi’s candidacy. They expect that he will prevent attacks on the U.S. bases in Iraq in the short term, and in the long-term edge out Iran and its Iraqi allies.

In this respect, the option of any action against Iran and its allies depends on Zurfi’s process of forming a government.

We also see Tehran’s capacity to unite Shiites around a common candidate waning after the assassination of Suleimani and Mahdi. Indeed, the failure of the visit of Secretary-General of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shemhani’s to Baghdad proves this claim.

The new allegations are that Hassan Daneyfar, Iran’s former ambassador to Baghdad had come to Iraq to reconcile the Shiite groups. Only the coming days will show whether these contacts have yielded results. But current process shows that Iran is trying its luck through media and political lobbying.

Iran backed parties reject Zurfi

The Iranian-backed Shiite parties, which have been pushing for the withdrawal of Zurfi’s candidacy and are demanding a replacement have proposed three new candidates. One of them Mohsen al-Zalimi, has already turned down this request. Thus, these groups, which until now had been insistent on appointing only their preferred politicians, appeared to be running low on the bargaining power.

In the current situation, their power is maneuvering is also limited. Zurfi’s dismissal is not legally possible unless he quits, which seems a farfetched scenario. He has already begun consultations to form a government. Another option could be to defeat him politically during a vote of confidence.

But the fact that the Iranian-backed groups are waging a political and psychological war against Zurfi suggests that they will not risk a vote of confidence. Another aspect of this psychological war is to use the global coronavirus of the COVID-19 crisis to delay political decision-making processes. That will allow Adil Abdul-Mahdi to continue as the prime minister.

Zurfi has three weeks to form a government. He may be a politically stubborn character, but his main mission now is to convince and persuade dissenting Shiite blocs. However, considering the political and psychological war launched against him, it is not difficult to predict that his road would be difficult.

In this case, three scenarios seem to be on the horizon. The first, and the toughest, is the possibility that the parties will make mutual concessions after lengthy negotiations and reach an agreement. Secondly, Zurfi withdraws from his candidacy, believing that his consultations would yield no results. The third possibility is that Zurfi will opt for seeking a vote of confidence in the parliament, with the support of Kurds, Sunnis and half the Shiite bloc.

As a result, it is too early to say whether Zurfi will be able to form a government on Iraq’s slippery political landscape. His main challenges are to convince political leaders with very divergent priorities and more importantly to respond to the demands of the protesters.

More so, the danger of another crisis looms large on Iraq, if the new government carries out its political activities without attending to the political, economic and social demands of the next generation.

*Taylan Cokenoglu is a researcher at the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) working on the social and political transformation of the Middle East and the relations between religion and politics in modern Shiite societies

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency

*Translated by Merve Dastan in Ankara

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India: COVID-19 politics catches apolitical Muslim group – Anadolu Agency

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NEW DELHI

A Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat is in the headlines, as reports of coronavirus or COVID-19 cases, emerging from different parts of the world are being linked to its gatherings.

The Indian government has filed a case against its Chief Maulana Mohammad Saad Kandhalvi for arranging a gathering at its headquarters located in Nizamuddin locality in the heart of capital New Delhi.

A strictly apolitical organization that focuses only on teaching basics of Islam to its followers, has invoked the ire of Indian media, which is projecting Muslims in general and the group in particular as villains in the battle against the spread of the virus.

Even senior leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were quick to denounce the Jamaat for arranging congregation, alleging the act had endangered lives.

Authorities said Kandhalvi had made a mockery of social distancing norms. They said that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, thousands of people continued to stay inside the Nizamuddin Markaz. But Jamaat office-bearers say that participants of the gathering had no way to go to their homes, because of sudden lockdown.

Kandhalvi, 55, is the great-grandson of Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlavi who founded the group in 1926 in a rural region of Mewat, in the outskirts of Delhi. The organization has millions of members spread in more than 90 countries, including Australia, the U.K., the U.S., Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The Jamaat sends followers to different parts of the world, teaching the basics of Islam and rituals to Muslims. Each group consists of eight to 12 people who take care of their expenses and stay in local mosques.

Kandhalvi is considered a scholar of Islam like his great grandfather and his grandfather Mohammad Yusuf.

His brother-in-law and close associate of Tablighi Jamaat, Maulana Zia ul Hasan, told Anadolu Agency: “Jamaat is an apolitical organization and our practices are in strict accordance with the Quran.”

The teachings of Tabligh Jamaat are expressed in “Six Principles”: Kalimah (or the declaration of faith), Salah (prayer), Ilm-o-zikr (knowledge), Ikraam-e-Muslim (respect of muslims), Ikhlas-e-Niyyat (sincerity of intention), and Dawat-o-Tableegh (proselytization).

Split in the group

Although Kandhalvi is a prominent figure with a vast number of his followers, three years ago there was a split and the group was divided into two factions.

Islamic scholars and prominent figures in the group, including Maulana Ibrahim Deol and Maulana Ahmed Lat, left after differences with Kandhalvi.

Deol and Lat, from the western Indian state of Gujarat, are the most well-known faces of the breakaway faction.

There is no figure to prove how many people belong to different groups.

According to critics, the biggest weakness of Kandhalvi’s personality is his “stubbornness”. He does not listen to anyone.

However, Kandhalvi’s brother-in-law Maulana Hasan does not consider him responsible for the split.

“They wanted that there should be different leaders every week. How decisions can be taken if a new leader is changed quickly in a religious organization like this?” he asked.

Regarding Kandhalvi’s “stubborn” nature, his brother-in-law said: “This accusation is not entirely correct. He is a leader of the Jamaat around the world and has to make decisions on many issues.”

When asked about the exact number of Tablighi Jamaat members, Hasan said he has no idea but claimed he read in a book published in the U.K. that there must be around 300 million.

Hasan admits Jamaat has committed mistakes unknowingly. “It would be wrong to say that all this has been done intentionally,” he said.



Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.

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How Chinese Americans Are Living Through a Second Pandemic: Politics Daily – The Atlantic

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It’s Friday, April 3. In today’s newsletter: How many Chinese Americans are now living through their second pandemic. Plus: An unhealthy military, struggling to fight COVID-19.

*

« TODAY IN POLITICS »

In January, Mei Mei, a real-estate agent in California, shipped N95 masks to her parents in China. When the outbreak started getting worse in the U.S., they considered sending the same masks back to her. (ERIN BRETHAUER)

As coronavirus cases fall in China and soar in the U.S., many Chinese Americans are experiencing a disconcerting case of déjà vu. The social isolation, overwhelmed hospitals, equipment shortages and deaths all feel eerily familiar, after what those with loved ones in China experienced as the disease first peaked in Wuhan.

First-generation immigrants in particular recognized the virus as a serious threat before much of the rest of America. Many other Chinese Americans still have close ties to China, and went from sending N95 masks to their loved ones in China to receiving them from the same family and friends they once considered at a higher risk.

Mei Mei, a real-estate agent in California, has been coordinating donations of masks, face shields, goggles, and other PPE to send to local hospitals. “A lot of the donations I received, they were all still in the original package shipping by their family [from China],” she told my colleague Sarah Zhang.

“You tell people around you, but they didn’t really want to believe that,” Yahua Yu, a Seattle neurologist who attended medical school in Wuhan, told Sarah. “Then you start saying, ‘You will see. You will see.’”

—Kaila Philo

*

« THE CORONAVIRUS READER »

(HISTORICAL / GETTY)

+ The U.S. armed forces are devoted to keeping the American public safe. But the pandemic has military personnel questioning whether they can promise as much for themselves, Kathy Gilsinan reports.

+ Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used the pandemic to seize absolute power in Hungary indefinitely. Now is the time for widespread scrutiny of the powers that be, Anne Applebaum argues.

+ Americans with disabilities fear that life-saving treatment could be withheld from them should they fall ill with COVID-19, Elaine Godfrey reports.

+ As unemployment skyrockets, President Trump’s reelection chances plummet, Annie Lowrey argues.

You can keep up with The Atlantic’s most crucial coronavirus coverage here.


*

Today’s newsletter was written by Kaila Philo, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to politicsdaily@theatlantic.com.

Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Kaila Philo is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic.

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The Coronavirus Is Transforming Politics and Economics – The New Yorker

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Just like in wartime, people are frightened, public attitudes are changing, and the circumstances necessitate an expanded role for the government, including the Department of the Treasury.Photographer by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

In early March, when health experts warned that the United States risked running short of vital medical supplies, such as masks and ventilators, Donald Trump resisted calls to invoke the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that gives the President broad powers to prioritize the production of certain items when they become important for national security. As recently as last week, he said, “We don’t need it.” Finally, on Thursday, Trump dropped the pretense and invoked the act to order the suppliers of ventilator manufacturers to give them the components they need to speed up production.

Every day, in ways small and large, the spread of the coronavirus is reshaping American politics. As the death toll rises and the economic fallout spreads, measures once considered unthinkable are being adopted, and not just in the public-health sphere. The $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill that Congress passed last week is worth about ten per cent of G.D.P., and in the coming months we are likely to see another stimulus. This dramatic ramp-up in federal spending is comparable to what happened in 1942, the year after Pearl Harbor, when federal spending as a share of G.D.P. rose by more than ten percentage points.

Trump is no F.D.R., of course, and the virus, unlike the Axis Powers, is an invisible enemy. But the record shows that lethal pandemics and major wars can both have enormous political and economic consequences. In his 2017 opus “The Great Leveler,” Walter Scheidel, a Stanford historian, described them as two of the “four horsemen” that have flattened economic inequality throughout human history. (The other two levelling forces that Scheidel identified were revolutions and state failures.) By decimating the population of medieval Europe, the Black Death made labor scarce, which raised wages and undermined the feudal system. The Civil War abolished slavery and gave rise to the Homestead Act of 1862. The First World War changed the role of women in the economy and paved the way for their political emancipation. The Second World War elevated the role of labor unions and led to the explicit adoption of Keynesian full-employment policies, through the 1946 Employment Act. In Europe, it facilitated the creation of a postwar welfare state, including the National Health Service in Britain.

These violent ruptures lasted years. We can hope that this horrible public-health crisis will also be temporary. And yet, the “wartime” metaphor is in many ways apt. Daily life has been transformed; in just two weeks, almost ten million Americans have filed unemployment claims; and earlier this week a White House task force said the death toll could eventually reach two hundred and forty thousand. Just like in wartime, people are frightened, public attitudes are changing, and the circumstances are necessitating a big expansion of the government’s role.

As of today, tens of millions of small and medium-sized firms will be able to take out bank loans to cover all of their running costs, including wages and rent, for the next eight weeks. If they keep their workers on the books, or rehire the ones they have laid off in the past couple of weeks, the Treasury Department will automatically repay the loans in their entirety. (I wrote about the scheme earlier this week.) The involvement of banks disguises the fact that this is essentially a huge, federal grant program, in which Uncle Sam will be paying the wages of tens of millions of Americans who are nominally private-sector employees. For a conservative Republican Administration, this is a strikingly interventionist move. But it doesn’t cover large corporations, and there are doubts about how quickly and widely the loans will be taken up. (The initial reports aren’t encouraging.) If the jobless count keeps rising, pressure will grow for the Administration to go further and copy the emergency job-protection programs that many European countries have adopted, which encompass businesses of all sizes and involve the government paying them directly.

In other policy areas, too, the Overton window—the range of political options considered acceptable—is expanding. The rapid passage of such a big stimulus, with more to come probably, has punctured the idea, assiduously promoted by deficit hawks, that we “can’t afford” more government programs. Despite all the additional spending, the U.S. Treasury is still able to borrow on remarkably favorable terms: on Thursday, the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds was just 0.63 per cent. And as a backstop, there is the Federal Reserve, with its electronic printing press at the ready.

You don’t have to be a convert to Modern Monetary Theory to have noted the alacrity with which the Fed, over the past month, has purchased and placed on its balance sheet about $1.5 trillion worth of Treasury bonds, commercial paper and bonds issued by large corporations, mortgage-backed securities, auto loans, and credit-card loans. In the coming days, it may well start lending directly to big corporations. As the Fed constructs a comprehensive safety net for Wall Street and corporate America, how can anyone argue against an equally comprehensive approach to safeguarding the welfare of medical workers, delivery-truck drivers, grocery-store employees, and other ordinary Americans on the front line of the battle to contain COVID-19?

The public at large may not grasp some of the financial intricacies, but it surely sees the urgent need for universal health care. According to a poll published by Morning Consult earlier this week, net support for Medicare for All—those who support it minus those who oppose it—has risen by nine points. The virus isn’t just raising support for socialized medicine; it is also undermining the finances of the private-insurance model. Caring for COVID-19 patients can be very costly. If the insurers have to recoup these costs next year, they could raise their 2021 premiums by more than forty per cent, according to an analysis by Covered California, the Golden State’s official health-insurance marketplace. Though Elizabeth Warren is out of the Democratic primary and it would be a huge surprise for Bernie Sanders to secure the Party’s nomination, they could well end up winning the debate over health-care policy.

In another important development, the mass layoffs that have resulted from the virus have also laid bare the iniquities of the gig economy, in which Uber drivers and other online-platform workers, temp-agency workers, and a whole variety of freelancers didn’t have access to health insurance, sick leave, or unemployment insurance. During an appearance on CNBC on Thursday, the investor James Chanos said he was selling short the stocks of gig-economy companies because their business model, which is based on classifying workers as self-employed to avoid giving them costly benefits, is likely to be challenged. “I think both political parties are going to be looking at that pretty hard,” Chanos said.

Much depends on the duration of the pandemic, of course. If the associated shutdowns prove to be reasonably short-lived—two or three months—the economy and the markets could rebound fairly rapidly. Congress and the Fed could wind down their emergency programs, and public attitudes could flip back. But the longer the pandemic goes on, and the deadlier it becomes, the greater the pressure will be for more government activism of various forms.

It would be reassuring to think that this pressure will always lead to necessary actions and progressive policies, but that might be kidding ourselves. A new study of the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on the U.S. and European countries shows that it led to a decline in social trust. The spread of the virus, the confinement measures taken to counter it, and “rumours about enemy spies spreading the infection beyond the lines as a kind of biological weapon created a climate of suspicion and mistrust,” the authors noted.

With some people already calling for residents of COVID-19 hotspots to be confined to their own areas, and Trump referring to “the China virus,” we are already seeing some echoes of this phenomenon. As the pandemic intensifies, it could lead to rising xenophobia, a further accentuation of regional divides, and even demands for authoritarian remedies, which Trump, having settled into the idea of himself as a wartime leader, might be all too eager to exploit.

That is worst-case speculation. But COVID-19 is shifting the tectonic plates that undergird American politics, and, as with the progress of the virus itself, the range of possible outcomes is wide. It is in such circumstances that history is made, for good or ill.


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