Iraqi protesters rally after night of arson attacks

Diwaniyah (Iraq) (AFP) –


Iraqi anti-government protesters again hit the streets Wednesday, angered by an activist's death and an attempt on the life on a popular TV satirist.

The latest rallies in Baghdad and cities including Basra and Karbala came after a night of unrest that saw protesters torch the headquarters of two pro-Iran militias in the country's south.

The demonstrators have rallied for almost three months to demand the ouster of the entire political class that has run the oil-rich yet poverty-ridden country in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion which overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein.

The mostly youthful activists accuse Iraq's leaders of enriching themselves, mismanaging the economy and being beholden to powerful neighbour Iran, an influential actor in Iraqi politics.

Passions were inflamed when popular TV satirist Aws Fadhil was targeted Tuesday by unknown assailants, with three bullets hitting his car.

Fadhil posted footage of the bullet holes on social media and declared: "They are targeting those who support the revolution, to silence them ... But we are continuing our revolution."

He added that "we have already achieved a goal", referring to a parliamentary vote Tuesday to approve an electoral reform law, in line with the demands of the protesters.

Lawmakers will from now be elected in first-past-the-post contests within electoral districts, rather than through a complex system using provincial party lists and proportional representation.

Constituencies will also be redrawn, though it was unclear how and critics feared the new boundaries could be biased toward major parties and tribal groups.

- Arson attacks -

Despite the reform steps, protesters again rallied Wednesday -- including in the city of Diwaniyah, where they marched under a large Iraqi flag to mourn a prominent activist, Thaer al-Tayeb.

A suspicious explosion hit Tayeb's car on December 15, badly wounding him and fellow activist Ali al-Madani, in Tayeb's hometown 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Baghdad.

After Tayeb's death in hospital was announced Tuesday, crowds of demonstrators rushed to the two headquarters of pro-Iran militias in Diwaniyah and torched them.

First they set fire to the building of the powerful Badr organisation, run by the parliamentary head of the pro-Iran paramilitaries, Hadi al-Ameri.

Then they burnt the headquarters of Assaib Ahl al-Haq, a group whose head Qais al-Khazali is subject to sanctions by the United States, accused of "kidnapping, murder and torture".

Protesters also blocked roads with burning car tyres in the southern city of Basra.

- Political deadlock -

Around 460 people have been killed, most of them protesters, since the start of the demonstrations in early October and 25,000 have been wounded.

But rallies have continue despite the campaign of intimidation, targeted killings and abductions of activists, which the United Nations blames on militias.

After dwindling in recent weeks, the protest campaign has recovered its vigour at a time when political factions are wrangling over a replacement for outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi.

He quit in November but still serves as caretaker. Negotiations to fill the premier's post have remained deadlocked since the latest in a series of deadlines expired at midnight on Sunday.

The latest candidate seen as a frontrunner is Assaad al-Aidani, the governor of Basra, a southern city which despite its oil wealth remains neglected in terms of infrastructure.

Aidani has the support of pro-Iranian factions who had previously lobbied for the outgoing higher education minister Qoussai al-Souheil, who was however opposed by President Barham Saleh.