Populist cleric joins Iraq protests as political crisis deepens
Najaf (Iraq) (AFP)
Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr joined thousands of demonstrators in the holy city of Najaf on Tuesday amid a spiralling political crisis sparked by deadly anti-government protests.
At least 240 people have died and 8,000 been wounded since demonstrations broke out on October 1 over unemployment and corruption, before evolving into calls for the government to quit.
Sadr, an ex-militiaman with a cult-like following in swathes of Iraq, has spearheaded demands for Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi's resignation and early parliamentary elections.
On Tuesday, he was spotted by an AFP correspondent amid thousands of anti-government demonstrators in his native Najaf, a holy city in southern Iraq.
He was seen in a white car in the city just after airport sources told AFP he had landed from neighbouring Iran.
Sadr himself is one of the current government's two main sponsors, after his Saeroon bloc won the largest share of parliament's 329 seats in a vote last year.
But he tweeted in support of an initial six-day wave of protests that rocked the country early this month and resumed last week.
- 'At once!' -
Demonstrators have so far been unimpressed by premier Abdel Mahdi's laundry list of reforms, which includes hiring drives and more social welfare.
Instead, they have increasingly pushed for early elections, a new government and a reworked constitution.
After failing to meet several times, parliament on Monday agreed to explore early polls and constitutional amendments, summoning Abdel Mahdi for questioning.
They reiterated their demand Tuesday, calling on him to appear at parliament headquarters "immediately".
In footage aired on local media, MPs from the largest bloc of Saeroon -- tied to Sadr -- could be heard chanting, "At once! At once!"
The parliament is deeply divided, with Sadr backing protests while second-largest bloc Fatah -- the political branch of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force -- backs the government.
Several Hashed offices have been torched in recent days in southern Iraq in what observers say is likely an escalation of the rivalry between Sadr and the Hashed.
Abdel Mahdi has urged Sadr to agree with Fatah chief Hadi al-Ameri on a way forward.
"If the goal of elections is to change the government, then there is a shorter way: for you to agree with Mr. Ameri to form a new government," the premier wrote in a public letter to the cleric on Tuesday.
"Once this agreement is reached, the prime minister can submit his resignation and the new government can receive its orders in days, if not hours," said Abdel Mahdi.
He dismissed the idea of bringing forward polls, saying, "But the fate of early elections would be unknown. Will its results be definitive?"
- 'Stay home? No way!' -
The chaotic protest movement is unprecedented in Iraq, both because of its apparently independent nature and the ensuing violence.
The first wave of protests starting October 1 left 157 people dead, mostly protesters in Baghdad, according to a government probe which acknowledged "excessive force" was used.
A second wave starting Thursday has left at least 83 dead.
Overnight, at least one protester was killed in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, said the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
The city's forensics chief told AFP a 24-year-old had been shot in the head, but the governor and security forces said it was "categorically false" anyone had died.
Rallies escalated on Tuesday, with trade unions representing teachers, lawyers and dentists all declaring strikes lasting several days.
In Iraq's southern cities of Hilla, Diwaniyah, Kut and Nasiriyah, most government offices remained closed on Tuesday for lack of staff.
Students gathered in those cities for their third day of demonstrations, ignoring orders by the higher education minister to return to class.
In the capital, protesters were massing on a key bridge linking their main gathering place in Tahrir Square to the Green Zone, where government offices and foreign embassies are based.
They managed to breach a first barrier set up by security forces, who have been holding back demonstrators there in recent days with volleys of tear gas.
Many had spent the night in tents or abandoned buildings in Tahrir in defiance of a curfew declared by the army.
"Their curfew changed nothing," 30-year-old protester Duaa said on Tuesday morning.
"Did the government think we would stay at home? No way."
About 60 percent of Iraq's 40-million population is under the age of 25.
But youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, while one in five people live below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.
"We don't want this government any more. We want a transitional government and constitutional change," another female protester said.
"I'm a teacher, I have a salary, I have a house -- but the young unemployed people are my brothers and relatives, too."
Â© 2019 AFP