Thou­sands of Iraqis protest over gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY VI­VIAN SALAMA

Thou­sands of Iraqis braved the scorch­ing sum­mer heat to stage a huge protest in cen­tral Bagh­dad on Fri­day, call­ing on the prime min­is­ter to dis­solve the par­lia­ment and sack cor­rupt gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

Se­cu­rity forces and riot po­lice sealed off Iraq’s iconic Tahrir Square and searched any­one who en­tered the area, but tens of thou­sands of men, women and chil­dren thronged the sprawl­ing square, wav­ing Iraqi flags.

“In the name of re­li­gion, the thieves robbed us,” they chanted long into the evening.

Men with the gov­ern­ment­backed Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces, the um­brella group made up pre­dom­i­nantly of Shi­ite mili­tias, pulled up in trucks and handed out ice wa­ter bot­tles to the protesters.

Their ges­ture was wel­comed by roar­ing shouts in sup­port of the paramil­i­tary force now fight­ing the Is­lamic State group. The PMU was hastily as­sem­bled last year, with pre-ex­ist­ing mili­tias and new vol­un­teers, to re­in­force the Iraqi mil­i­tary af­ter it crum­bled in the face of the Sunni mil­i­tant blitz that seized a third of the coun­try.

“The gov­ern­ment is rob­bing the Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces too!” the protesters cried, with many PMU fight­ers claim­ing they weren’t re­ceiv­ing salaries promised to them.

This is the sec­ond Fri­day of protests in Bagh­dad and across Iraq, with peo­ple ini­tially call­ing on author­i­ties to ad­dress the coun­try’s chronic elec­tric­ity prob­lems as tem­per­a­tures in the cap­i­tal soared above 50 de­grees Cel­sius. But with lit­tle ac­tion from the Shi­ite­dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing last week’s demon­stra­tions, the call for a gov­ern­ment shake-up in­ten­si­fied.

As Haider al-Abadi nears his one-year an­niver­sary since as­sum­ing the role of Iraq’s prime min­is­ter, he faces his big­gest chal­lenge yet as an eco­nomic cri­sis and crip­pling war with the Is­lamic State group put a choke on do­mes­tic ser­vices. Dis­con­tent is ris­ing, even among the coun­try’s Shi­ite ma­jor­ity, with protests spring­ing up in cities from Bagh­dad to Basra.

“Change, that’s what we need,” said school­teacher Na­jlaa Malek, one of the protesters in the square Fri­day. “The prob­lems in this coun­try have be­come too many to list. And our lead­ers talk a great deal but then they do noth­ing to fix them.”

One man cir­cled the square hold­ing a mock do­na­tions box, with the writ­ten mes­sage: “pro­ceeds go to the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives.”

The protesters rep­re­sented mixed po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tions, or­ga­niz­ers of the protest say­ing that about 75 per­cent were lib­er­als, com­mu­nists, linked to var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal groups for youth, or in­de­pen­dent. Pro­fes­sional syn­di­cates were on hand, with the mem­bers of the lawyers syn­di­cate march­ing in their ju­di­cial robes through the square de­mand­ing ba­sic hu­man rights.

Two of Iraq’s most pow­er­ful Shi­ite or­ga­ni­za­tions, Badr and Asaib al-Haq, were rep­re­sented in smaller num­bers, while a few re­li­gious cler­ics at­tended but kept a low pro­file.

Fadel el- Khafaji, a self- de­scribed lib­eral who has a de­gree in en­gi­neer­ing, sells women’s cloth­ing, he said, be­cause he can’t find a job in his field.

AP

An Iraqi fed­eral po­lice of­fi­cer stands guard while protesters chant antigov­ern­ment slo­gans dur­ing a protest in Tahrir Square in Bagh­dad, Iraq, Fri­day, Aug. 7.

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