BAGHDAD – Iraq's president Tuesday named a former governor of the city of Najaf as prime minister-designate, following weeks of political infighting, as Baghdad residents rushed to stock up on supplies hours before a days-long curfew was set to take hold amid a global pandemic.
Adnan al-Zurfi was appointed premier-designate by President Barham Saleh after tense meetings between rival political blocs. The meetings went on for weeks without reaching a consensus on a candidate to replace outgoing Premier Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Hours after the announcement, Iraq's powerful Fatah parliamentary bloc rejected al-Zurfi's candidacy signaling a rocky path to government formation for the new premier-designate.
An earlier premier-designate, Mohammed Allawi, withdrew his candidacy after political groups rejected his proposed Cabinet lineup.
Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Ameri, garnered the second highest number of seats in parliament in the May 2018 federal election.
In a statement, the bloc accused Saleh of “disregarding” the constitution and naming al-Zurfi in the absence of political consensus. “The president of the republic shall endure full responsibility for the repercussions of this provocative step.”
“We will take all measures to prevent this disregard of the law and constitution,” the statement said.
Al-Zurfi, 54, was appointed by Iraq's U.S. administrator Paul Bremer as governor of Najaf in 2004 and later served in the same post between 2009 and 2015. His third term was cut short following his dismissal by the provincial council. In the May 2018 election he won a seat in parliament under former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's list.
According to Iraq's constitution, al-Zurfi has 30 days to propose a lineup of ministers and form a new government. Saleh wished al-Zarfi success “in his new tasks to work for early and fair elections and to achieve the aspirations of the Iraqis,” according to a statement from his office.
Early elections have been a key demand of anti-government protesters camped out in the capital's Tahrir Square. Last October, thousands took to the streets to decry government corruption, poor services and unemployment. Abdul-Mahdi resigned under pressure from the demonstrations.
Subsequently, Allawi's efforts to form a government were plagued with delays and dysfunction as legislators failed on two occasions to approve his Cabinet of independents, which alienated Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers.
Anti-government protesters said they rejected al-Zurfi's nomination. In Tahrir Square, demonstrators marked his portrait with an “X.”
“This political class could never select a candidate we'd endorse,” said protester Mustafa Ali, 26.
Al-Zurfi's appointment came hours before a curfew imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic was to take effect in Baghdad as Iraq struggles to contain the spread of the virus.
Residents of the Iraqi capital rushed Tuesday to stock up on last-minute supplies ahead of the start of the 11 p.m. curfew. Many were concerned it could be extended beyond the week's time announced by the government.
Long lines formed at gas stations and shops. Workers stood guard outside supermarkets to take the temperatures of shoppers coming in. Gloves were handed out.
The effective lockdown coincides with the annual Shiite Muslim commemoration of the death of revered Imam Mousa al-Kazim. Thousands of Iraqis typically make the journey on foot to the shrine of the imam in the Khadimiya area outside Baghdad.
Pilgrims in the past few days have been stopped from carrying out the trek by security forces over fears of the virus, which has infected more than 182,000 people and killed more than 7,100 globally.
The fate of the six-month protest movement has also come into question amid the strict protocols prohibiting large public gatherings. In a collective statement, demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the hub of the movement, said they were suspending protest activities.
“There will be no large gatherings with the suspension of all protest activities, including marches and cultural activities inside and outside the square until the crisis ends,” the statement said. It added that “full time mobile teams” would be formed from among demonstrators to sterilize roads and shops in Tahrir.
The number of demonstrators camped out in central Baghdad squares had been dwindling before the outbreak. Some protesters were adamant about keeping a presence in Tahrir, while others said they feared an outbreak.
Iraq has had 11 deaths among 154 confirmed cases of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness. Most people experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.