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Iraq names new PM as rockets hit base hosting foreign troops

BAGHDAD: Iraqi President Barham Saleh (left) meets Prime Minister-designate Adnan Al-Zurfi yesterday. – AFP

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s president yesterday named pro-Western lawmaker Adnan Zurfi, a former Najaf city governor, as the next prime minister, tasked with ruling a country hit by military unrest, street protests and the coronavirus outbreak. 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, an opposition force to ex-dictator Saddam Hussein who was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion. Zurfi is an Iraqi-US dual national who would have to renounce his American citizenship to take up the premiership, which is yet to be confirmed by parliament.

President Barham Saleh said he had nominated Zurfi to replace outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, who resigned in December amid Iraq’s 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.

While he is likely to have the backing of some Shiite parties and the Kurdish and Sunni factions, he was quickly rejected by the powerful Fatah bloc, parliament’s second-largest. “We reject the president’s unconstitutional step,” said a statement by Fatah, the political arm of the Hashed Al-Shaabi military network that includes factions allied with Washington’s arch-foe Tehran.

Rockets hit base
Zurfi’s 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 Iraqi government source told AFP that political factions had intensely debated names for days, seeking a “non-confrontational” figure.

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 yesterday. The president’s announcement came just hours after the two rockets hit the Besmaya base about 60 km south of Baghdad, according to the Iraqi military, the US-led coalition and NATO, all of which have forces stationed there.

US-led coalition sources said later they would redeploy hundreds of troops from bases in Iraq, sending some of them outside the country, but denied the move was a response to the recent spike in rocket attacks. “The coalition is re-positioning troops from a few smaller bases,” said coalition spokesman Myles Caggins. The first redeployment was taking place yesterday from Qaim, the western base along the border with Syria, a coalition official told AFP.

“A transfer ceremony is taking place today to hand over the facilities to Iraqi forces, and the intent is that all coalition troops will be leaving Qaim,” the official said. “It’s historic,” the official added, saying about 300 US-led coalition troops would be moved out of the base. Some had already been redeployed to coalition positions in neighboring war-ravaged Syria along with artillery, while others would be sent to other bases in Iraq or to Kuwait.

Three coalition troops were 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, which has been nominally incorporated into the Iraqi state’s armed forces.

The US has repeatedly bombed Kataeb Hezbollah weapons depots across Iraq. 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 system has slowed the implementation of the decision.

Baghdad in virus lockdown
Amid all the political turmoil, Iraq is also 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 was to enter into a six-day curfew at 11 pm (2000 GMT) yesterday, as more than half of Iraq’s provinces have announced similar restrictions of varying lengths. All flights into and out of the country have been suspended until March 24.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani announced yesterday 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 against a ruling class widely seen as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighboring 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. – AFP

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