Iraq's president Tuesday (March 17th) 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 international 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 holy city of Najaf and once belonged to the Dawa party, the longtime opposition force to ex-dictator Saddam Hussein.
President Barham Saleh said he had nominated Zurfi to replace outgoing premier Adel Abdul 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-Abbadi, 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.
An earlier nominee, Mohammad Allawi, had failed to form a cabinet by March 2nd, 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 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 11th in an attack on the Taji airbase, which was targeted again on March 14th.
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 Kataib Hizbullah, an Iran-backed faction in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a military network that has been incorporated into the Iraqi state's armed forces.
The US bombed Kataib Hizbullah weapons depots across Iraq in December and again last week in retaliation.
It also killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the PMF deputy chief in a drone strike in January, sparking deep anger and retaliatory missile attacks from Iran.
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 11 p.m. 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 24th.
The country's top shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani announced Tuesday he was banning all group prayers in the country.
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 shia-majority south have been almost totally eclipsed by recent developments, but violence against protestors has continued.
Late Monday, a protestor 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.