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article imageIraq PM's future on the line as demonstrators smell change

By AFP     Oct 30, 2019 in World

Talks were underway on Wednesday over the ouster of Iraq's embattled premier, after his onetime backers distanced themselves over anti-government protests that have left over 240 dead.

Massive rallies broke out in Iraq's capital and south this month against corruption and unemployment, spiralling into angry calls for a total government overhaul.

Economic woes and corruption have been major factors bringing protestors to the streets
Economic woes and corruption have been major factors bringing protestors to the streets
Gal ROMA, AFP

By Wednesday, demonstrators were waiting to see whether the first fruit of their struggle -- the ouster of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi -- was finally within reach.

They flooded Tahrir Square in Baghdad, and a cacophony of honking horns, fireworks and blasts from tear gas canisters used by security forces could be heard from nearby districts.

As thousands streamed into the chaotic square, quiet talks were underway among the country's leaders over the premier's fate.

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

But the premier appears to have lost top-tier support, with Sadr calling for his resignation and early elections.

President Barham Saleh held talks with Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbussi and Ameri late Tuesday over the premier's ouster, an Iraqi government source told AFP.

And parliament has demanded that the premier appear "immediately" for questioning amid speculation he will face a no-confidence vote.

- No alternative? -

The kingmakers' alliance between Sadr and Ameri has been ruptured by protests, with Sadr's Saeroon bloc, the biggest in parliament, endorsing the demonstrators.

The Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, whose political arm Fatah is parliament's second-biggest bloc and is chaired by Ameri, has so far backed the government.

Several Hashed offices were torched in southern Iraq last week, further straining ties.

Protests have continued in southern cities such as Basra despite violence that has left more than 24...
Protests have continued in southern cities such as Basra despite violence that has left more than 240 people dead and more than 8,000 wounded
-, AFP

But Sadr extended an invitation to Ameri late Tuesday to coordinate on a no-confidence vote in Abdel Mahdi and used Twitter to urge the premier to "Get out!"

Hours later, Ameri announced he and Sadr would "work together to achieve the people's demands," hinting he may agree to a vote on the premier's future.

Sadr took to Twitter again on Wednesday to pile on pressure, warning that keeping Abdel Mahdi would "turn Iraq into Syria or Yemen" -- countries both engulfed in bloody wars.

Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iraqis they should find legal ways to resolve crises instead of hitting the streets.

"The people of Iraq and Lebanon have some demands that are rightful, but they should know these demands can only be realised within the legal frameworks," said Khamenei.

As rumours swirled that Abdel Mahdi's days were numbered, people rallied in Tahrir for a seventh consecutive day on Wednesday.

Despite violence that has left more than 240 people dead and more than 8,000 wounded, they have defied orders to clear the streets.

They were joined on Wednesday by the United Nations' top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who called again for a national dialogue to "unite against the perils of division and inaction."

- 'Back to square one' -

Athir Malik, 39, came from Diwaniyah, 200 kilometres (130 miles) further south, to join the rallies on Wednesday.

"Isn't it the people who have the power? Isn't it the people who put them all there?" asked protester Athir Malek, 39.

Demonstrators have shrugged off a litany of government reform plans and called for a new constitution, reworked electoral law and mass resignations from a government they see as corrupt.

"They should all quit and we should have a national salvation government," said Alaa Khdeir, 63.

While the premier's departure would be seen as a "victory" for demonstrators, it would "give protests a break but not break them," said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"Even an election with the same election law would bring (the) same figures into parliament and the same process as last year in selecting the prime minister, which puts you once again at square one," Fantappie said.

Baghdad's Tahrir Square has been at the centre of the demonstrations
Baghdad's Tahrir Square has been at the centre of the demonstrations
SABAH ARAR, AFP

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

The country is ranked by Transparency International as the 12th most corrupt in the world.

That means getting a job in government -- by far the country's biggest employer -- is often secured with bribes or connections.

Anger at the state of affairs had been swelling among the youth, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 40 million people.

Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, while one in five live below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.

Inequality and corruption have been major rallying cries for protesters.

"We want to take back everything they stole," said 55-year-old Hussein Nuri.

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