BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's president refused on Thursday to designate a prime minister candidate nominated by the Iran-backed parliamentary bloc, plunging the country into further political uncertainty amid nearly three months of unprecedented mass protests.
President Barham Saleh said in a statement issued by his office that he would not name the governor of the southern Basra province, Asaad al-Eidani, as the country's next prime minister “to avoid more bloodshed and in order to safeguard civil peace.”
Al-Eidani's name was proposed on Wednesday by the Fatah bloc, which includes leaders associated with the Iran-supported paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces. His nomination was promptly rejected by Iraqi protesters who poured into the streets Wednesday demanding an independent candidate.
Demonstrators first took to the streets on Oct. 1 to call for the overthrow of Iraq's entire political class over corruption and mismanagement. The mass uprisings prompted the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi late last month. More than 450 people have been killed since October, the vast majority of them protesters killed by security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition.
Concentrated in Baghdad and the mostly Shiite-inhabited south, the protests have since evolved into an uprising against Iran's political and military influence in the country.
Saleh said he was prepared to submit his resignation to Parliament, as his refusal to designate al-Eidani could be construed as a violation of the constitution. He stopped short of actually stepping down, however, saying in a statement addressed to the Parliament speaker that he would leave it up to lawmakers to decide “as they see fit.” Shortly after issuing the statement, the president left Baghdad for his hometown in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah.
Under the constitution, parliament has seven days to accept or reject a president's resignation before it automatically goes into effect. It was unclear how lawmakers would react, as Saleh did not officially resign.
In Baghdad's Tahrir Square, which has emerged as a focal point of their demonstrations, protesters gathered to celebrate the president's decision.
“This is a victory for the demonstrators and a victory for the blood of the martyrs," said activist Hassanein Gharib. “Because of street pressure, the candidate of the (political) parties was rejected, and we will not accept and we will not return to our homes if the party candidate is nominated."
A leading politician and former government official familiar with the latest developments said they presented a “real crisis that may lead to the collapse of the state.”
“The situation is very dangerous," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge sensitive information.
According to Iraq's constitution, the largest bloc in parliament is required to nominate the new prime minister, who then has to be designated by the president. A deadline to name a new prime minister has been missed twice over disagreements on which is the largest bloc in the parliament following last year’s elections.
There are two main blocs in the Iraqi Parliament: Sairoon, led by populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; and Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri. But the numbers in the blocs have continued to change since last year’s elections, with an unknown number of lawmakers leaving some blocs and joining others.
On Saturday, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court provided guidance in a statement, but stopped short of naming the largest bloc. It said the decision should be based on parliament’s first session after taking office last year. But the court also said it would accept the merger of two or more lists to become the largest bloc. The same day, President Saleh sent the court’s response to parliament, asking the legislature to say which is the largest bloc.
A Facebook page close to al-Sadr commented on the president's position saying: "Thank you, Mr. President, for rejecting the candidates that the people reject, a position that history, and the (Iraqi) people and the (Shiite religious) authority will record.”