Iraq leaders scramble to respond to mounting rallies

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraq's leaders scrambled on Thursday to produce a solution to mounting protests demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi that have so far left more than 250 dead.

Demonstrations first erupted on October 1 over corruption and unemployment and have since ballooned, with protesters now insisting on a government overhaul.

Their demands have been backed by populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc Saeroon has been gathering support to force the premier to come in for questioning.

The lawmakers are set to meet on Thursday for a fourth consecutive day as the executive branch, too, tried to find a political solution.

On Thursday, President Barham Saleh held closed-door talks on the premier's ouster with Iraq's main political figures, a source in the presidenti's office said.

"Things are heading towards a resolution," another senior Iraqi official told AFP.

But protesters appeared undeterred.

Across the country's Shiite-majority south, demonstrators came out in force on Thursday despite efforts to quell them with curfews, tear gas or live fire.

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

And in Basra, demonstrators cut off a main road leading to the Umm Qasr port, its authorities said, one of the main import zones for food and other supplies into Iraq.

In the capital Baghdad, crowds occupied the emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square for the eighth consecutive day.

"We're tired of the whole situation over the past 16 years. The country went from bad to worse," said Salwa Mezher, a middle-aged woman protesting with the Iraqi flag around her shoulders.

- 'Let them leave' -

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 percent, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.

That inequality has been a rallying cry for protesters.

"Our problem isn't just with Adel Abdel Mahdi, it's with them all," said Mezher, before adding a refrain popularised in this month's protests: "Weed them all out!"

The protests are unique in Iraq's recent history for their fury at the entire leadership, even typically 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.

Overnight, demonstrators had piled on the pressure on two bridges leading from Tahrir into the Green Zone.

The enclave, where government buildings and foreign embassies are based, has boosted security measures in response to protests.

Crowds packed onto the bridges on Thursday, setting up their own barricades to face off against riot police trying to hold them off with tear gas.

Throughout the night, blasts from tear gas canisters and stun grenades rang out from the area.

Late on Wednesday, a rocket attack hit a checkpoint near the US embassy, killing one Iraqi military member and wounding others, security sources told AFP.

- 'Trapped, dependent' -

The protests rocked Baghdad and the south for six days at the start of the month, then resumed on October 24 after a more than two-week lull.

Since resuming, the rallies and ensuing violence have left at least 100 people dead and 5,500 wounded, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said.

The number brings the toll since October 1 to 257 dead and more than 10,000 wounded.

Abdel Mahdi, 77, came to power a year ago through a tenuous partnership between Sadr and Hadi al-Ameri, a member of the powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force.

That alliance has frayed in recent months, and 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.

Any candidate would have to be "presentable to the parliament and accepted by the streets," said Maria Fantappie, an expert at the International Crisis Group.

"A consensus candidate with a technocratic background? We know the ending of that story," said Fantappie, referring to Abdel Mahdi's rocky tenure.

"He will once again be trapped and dependent on these two blocs, and it will bring the same kind of discontent in the streets."