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Protests heat up as Baghdad faces renewed pressure

Striking students and teachers hold demonstrations

BAGHDAD: Anti-government rallies swelled in Iraq’s capital and south yesterday as Baghdad faced new pressure from the street, Washington and the United Nations to respond seriously to weeks of demonstrations. Protests demanding a new leadership have rocked the capital and Shiite-majority south for weeks – the crowds unmoved by government pledges of reform and undeterred by the deaths of more than 300 people.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he told Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi that he “deplored the death toll” and to address the popular movement’s “legitimate grievances”. The protests had slowed for a few days following a deadly crackdown by security forces in Baghdad and major southern cities but flared again yesterday with demonstrations by striking students and teachers.

“We’re here to back the protesters and their legitimate demands, which include teachers’ rights,” said Aqeel Atshan, a professor on strike, in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicentre of the protest movement. In the southern port city of Basra, around 800 students returned to camp outside the provincial government headquarters days after they had been pushed out by riot police. Schools were also shut in the protest hotspots of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah.

Protesters have felt newly emboldened since the country’s top Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said they “cannot go home without sufficient reforms”. “Students, boys and girls alike, are all here for a sit-in,” another demonstrator in Tahrir told AFP. “If Sistani gave the orders for mass civil disobedience, everything would close – the government, the oil companies, everything. That’s how we’ll have a solution.”

Sadr changes tune?
Iraq’s parliament met yesterday afternoon and set dates to interrogate two ministers, which could indicate the first steps of a planned cabinet reshuffle announced by Abdel Mahdi. At the session’s opening, speaker of parliament Mohammed Al-Halbussi pledged to work on laws to respond to protesters’ demands including electoral reform. Parliament has received a draft law for electoral reform but has yet to discuss it.
On the session’s sidelines, Halbussi met with the head of the United Nations’ mission in Iraq (UNAMI), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. Hennis-Plasschaert has put out a phased roadmap of reforms which earlier this week earned the key endorsement of Sistani. The plan calls for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months.

Oil-rich Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent. Demonstrations erupted on October 1 in fury over a lack of jobs and corruption, initially fracturing the ruling class. Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr then called on the government to resign and President Barham Saleh suggested early elections, while other factions stood by Abdel Mahdi.

But after a series of meetings led by Iran’s influential Major General Qasem Soleimani, a consensus emerged at the weekend over the government remaining intact and both Saleh and Sadr appear to have changed their tunes. Sadr, who is reported to be in Iran, took to Twitter yesterday to call on parliament to enact reforms and for “a general strike, even for one day”, but did not demand the premier step down. Saleh, too, appears to have dropped the idea of early elections.

‘Deplored death toll’
The agreement brokered by Soleimani appeared to have paved the way for a crackdown on demonstrations last weekend that sent the death toll amid the unrest to well over 300. Iraq has faced growing criticism over its response to rallies, with rights defenders accusing authorities of shooting live rounds at protesters and curtailing freedom of expression with an internet blackout and mass arrests.

Pompeo said he spoke to Abdel Mahdi by phone late Tuesday and “deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force”. “I called on him to protect the protesters and to address their legitimate grievances,” Pompeo said. Also on Wednesday, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, was in Baghdad to meet with the premier, president and speaker of parliament. Barzani and Abdel Mahdi are believed to have good personal ties, and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have backed the current government. But they have worried that any amendments to Iraq’s 2005 constitution as part of a reform process would infringe on Kurdish rights. – AFP

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