Iraq protesters gather for demonstration

2011-03-04 12:01
Baghdad - Protesters streamed into central Baghdad on foot on Friday after authorities imposed vehicle bans on major cities ahead of rallies over corruption, unemployment and poor public services.

The demonstrations come after nationwide protests in more than a dozen cities a week ago, which spurred Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to give his cabinet 100 days to shape up or face the sack.

Several hundred protesters had gathered in central Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Friday morning, with more on the way, chanting, "Liar, Liar, Nuri al-Maliki" and "Oil for the people, not for the thieves".

The demonstrators, who were outnumbered by security forces, also carried banners which read, "Where has the people's money gone?" and "Yes for democracy and the protection of freedom".

Similar demonstrations, also with several hundred protesters, were taking place in the holy city of Najaf and the port of Basra.

"We are not Baathists, we are just Iraqis asking for simple rights like services," said finance ministry employee Ammar Ziad, who was protesting at Tahrir Square.

He was referring to comments by Maliki ahead of last week's protests in which he claimed they were organised by loyalists of late dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and insurgents linked to al-Qaeda.

Vehicle curbs have been applied to all of Baghdad, with the capital's streets deserted but for a handful of cars attempting to evade checkpoints, and the centre of Basra.

'Day of Regret'

Nasiriyah, in the south, barred anyone from entering.

Complete vehicle bans were also placed on every non-Kurdish province north of the capital, with protesters not even allowed near provincial governorate offices in the city of Mosul, after five demonstrators were killed and one building set ablaze in rallies there a week ago.

Friday's rallies have been billed by some organisers as a "Day of Regret", to mark one year since parliamentary elections.

It took politicians more than nine months to form a government after the poll on March 7 2010, and even now, several key positions, such as the ministers of interior, defence and planning, remain unfilled.

"People will continue demonstrating until there is reform because the government has been built on a sectarian basis," said Faisal Hamid, a pensioner who walked to Tahrir Square from the nearby neighbourhood of Karrada.

"Officials only look for their personal interests."

Demonstrations have been taking place in Iraq for the past month, with protesters decrying a lack of improvement in their daily lives, eight years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.

The biggest such rallies took place last Friday, when Iraqis took to the streets of at least 17 cities and towns. A total of 16 people were killed and more than 130 wounded as a result of clashes on the day.

Early elections

The spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'ite majority has also added his voice to calls for the government to step up its performance, saying last week that ministers needed to make progress on improving power supplies, providing food for the needy, creating jobs and combating corruption.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is based in the central shrine city of Najaf and rarely wades into politics, also called on Iraq's leaders to "cancel unacceptable benefits" given to current and former politicians, and said they must "not invent unnecessary government positions that cost Iraq money".

The rallies have led to the resignations of four top officials - three southern provincial governors and Baghdad's mayor.

In response, Maliki told ministers on Sunday they would be assessed on their performance in the coming 100 days, with "changes" being made based on whether or not they improved.

He has also pushed measures to combat graft, cut politicians' pay and dedicate more money to providing food for the poor in a bid to head off the demonstrations.

Maliki and parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi have also backed early provincial elections. The last such polls were conducted in January 2009.

Read more on:    nuri al-maliki  |  iraq

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