Iraq names new PM as rockets hit base hosting foreign troops

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraq's president Tuesday named ex-Najaf city governor Adnan Zurfi as the new prime minister, tasked with ruling a country hit by street protests, military unrest and now the coronavirus pandemic.

The nomination came hours after two rockets hit an Iraqi military base hosting US-led coalition and NATO troops, the third such attack within a week, without causing casualties according to military officials.

Lawmaker Zurfi, 54, is the former governor of the Shiite holy city of Najaf and once belonged to the Dawa party, the longtime opposition force to ex-dictator Saddam Hussein who was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion.

President Barham Saleh said he had nominated Zurfi to replace outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, who resigned in December, at a time when Iraq has been rocked by an unprecedented wave of anti-government rallies.

Zurfi, a member of the Nasr coalition led by ex-PM Haider al-Abadi, now has 30 days to pull together a government, which must then be confirmed by parliament.

His nomination comes at an especially tumultuous time for Iraq, which has been battered by almost six months of street protests, collapsing oil prices, the novel coronavirus outbreak and the renewed rocket attacks which Washington blames on pro-Iranian forces.

A senior government source told AFP that political factions had intensely debated names for days, seeking a "non-confrontational" figure in an attempt to preserve the status quo.

Iraq has since 2003 been governed under a sectarian power-sharing system characterised by intense horsetrading between sects and parties.

An earlier nominee, Mohammad Allawi, had failed to form a cabinet by March 2, triggering a new 15-day deadline for Saleh that was set to end late Tuesday.

- Rockets hit base -

The president's announcement came just hours after a new pre-dawn rocket attack targeted foreign troops stationed in Iraq.

Two rockets hit the Besmaya base about 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of Baghdad, according to the Iraqi military, the US-led coalition and NATO, all of which have forces stationed there.

The Iraqi military made no mention of casualties and a NATO press officer told AFP none of its forces were hurt.

The past week has seen a renewed spike in rockets hitting Iraqi bases hosting foreign forces, with three coalition troops killed on March 11 in an attack on the Taji airbase, which was targeted again on March 14.

There have been 24 rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad or bases where foreign troops are deployed since late October, killing a total of three American military personnel, one British soldier and one Iraqi soldier.

None of the attacks have been claimed, but Washington has blamed Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed faction in the Hashed al-Shaabi, a military network that has been incorporated into the Iraqi state's armed forces.

The US bombed Kataeb Hezbollah weapons depots across Iraq in December and again last week in retaliation.

It also killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the Hashed deputy chief in a drone strike in January, sparking deep anger and retaliatory missile attacks from Iran.

Iraq's parliament, which sees the US strikes as a violation of its sovereignty, has voted to oust all foreign forces -- but the paralysis gripping the political class has slowed the implementation of the decision.

- Baghdad on lockdown -

Amid the political turmoil, Iraq is struggling to curb the impact of the coronavirus.

According to an AFP toll compiled from medics, the COVID-19 illness is known to have caused 12 deaths in Iraq and infected another 133 people.

Baghdad will enter into a six-day curfew at 11pm (2000 GMT) on Tuesday, as more than half of Iraq's provinces have also announced individual curfews of varying lengths.

All flights into and out of the country have been suspended until March 24.

The country's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani announced Tuesday he was banning all group prayers in the Shiite-majority country.

Anyone who dies of the new viral strain would be considered a "martyr", Sistani's office said.

The public health crisis comes after nearly six months of street protests demanding the ouster of a ruling class widely seen as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighbouring Iran.

The popular rallies in Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south have been almost totally eclipsed by recent developments, but violence against protesters has continued.

Late Monday, a protester died in Baghdad after being shot with a hunting rifle, medics told AFP.

More than 550 people have been killed in protest-related violence since late October.