Iraq president vows early polls as protesters demand more

Baghdad, IraqUpdated: Nov 01, 2019, 11:29 AM IST
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File photo. Photograph:(AFP)

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In his first televised address in weeks, President Barham Saleh said the country's embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was ready to step down, but there was so far no one to take his place.

Iraq's president vowed on Thursday to hold early elections in response to a month of deadly protests, but demonstrators said the move fell far short of their demands for a political overhaul.

In his first televised address in weeks, President Barham Saleh said the country's embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was ready to step down, but there was so far no one to take his place.

"The prime minister expressed his willingness to submit his resignation, asking the political parties to reach an agreement on an acceptable alternative," said Saleh.

He pledged to hold early elections as soon as a new voting law and oversight commission was agreed, but his speech did not appear to impress demonstrators.

"Barham's speech is just an opiate for the masses," said Haydar Kazem, 49. 

"Abdel Mahdi's resignation isn't a solution, it's part of the solution. The problem is with the ruling parties, not with Abdel Mahdi."

Iraq's leaders have scrambled to respond to massive protests that erupted on October 1 over unemployment and corruption, ballooning into demands for "the downfall of the regime".

Saleh has held closed-door talks with top figures over Abdel Mahdi's ouster and parliament has called on the premier to come in for questioning.

Abdel Mahdi has so far resisted, saying he would only appear if the session was aired on television.

Lawmakers met Thursday for a fourth consecutive day and agreed to broadcast any session live, with Saeroon MPs chanting: "Adel must come! Adel must come!"

UN warns against 'inaction'

Abdel Mahdi, 77, came to power a year ago through a tenuous partnership between populist cleric Moqtada Sadr and paramilitary leader Hadi al-Ameri.

The kingmakers' alliance has frayed in recent months, as Sadr threw his weight behind the protests while Ameri and his allies backed the government.

A rapprochement built on Abdel Mahdi's ouster appeared close on Tuesday night, but disagreements over who could replace him seemed to have slowed down the process.

The United Nations' top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, called for a national dialogue to draw a roadmap out of the crisis.

"Today Iraq stands at a crossroads. Progress through dialogue or divisive inaction," she said. 

"Full access to all information, facts and figures will prove key. Window dressing will only feed anger and resentment."

Since the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq's political system has been gripped by clientelism, corruption and sectarianism.

Getting a job in government, the country's biggest employer, is often secured with bribes or connections.

One in five Iraqis live below the poverty line and youth unemployment stands at 25 per cent, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.

That inequality has been a rallying cry for the protests.

"Because of these politicians, there are now two classes in Iraq: those with huge salaries and those killed demanding their rights," said Sabah Kazem, a protester in the southern city of Nasiriyah. 

'Skull-piercing' grenades

Nearby, Diwaniyah saw its largest rallies yet: students, teachers, farmers and health workers hit the streets as government offices remained closed.

In Basra, demonstrators cut off a main road leading to the Umm Qasr port -- one of the main conduits food and other imports into Iraq -- authorities said.

The rallies are unique in Iraq's recent history for their fury at the entire leadership, even normally revered clerics.

"We don't want them, so let them leave. We also don't want the clerics -- they have no business in politics," said Hoda, a 59-year-old in a headscarf and sunglasses protesting in Baghdad.

Demonstrators packed onto two bridges leading to the capital's Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are based, setting up barricades to face off against riot police trying to hold them off with tear gas.

Late on Thursday, paramilitary fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi, which had backed the government, held their own demonstration near Tahrir. 

At least 257 people have died and 10,000 have been wounded since protests broke out on October 1, with 100 people losing their lives in the last week, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said.

Amnesty International said it had documented the  "unprecedented" use of military-grade tear gas canisters that were directly shot protesters and "pierced" their heads or chest. 

It found at least five protesters had died in as many days from the "horrific" weapon and urged an immediate halt to their use.