Iraq protests swell with youth angry at slow pace of reform

Baghdad (AFP) –


Protests escalated across Iraq's south and its capital Baghdad on Sunday as demonstrators sealed off streets with burning tyres in outrage at the government's slow pace of reform.

The youth-dominated rallies demanding an overhaul of the ruling system have rocked Shiite-majority parts of Iraq since October, but had thinned out in recent weeks amid the geopolitical storm of rising Iran-US tensions.

On Sunday the anti-government protest movement was re-ignited with hundreds of angry young people descending on the main protest camp in Baghdad's Tahrir Square as well as the nearby Tayaran Square.

Others burned tyres to block highways and bridges, turning back cars and leading to traffic jams across the city.

"This is only the first escalation," one protester with a scarf wrapped around his face told AFP as smoke from the tyres turned the sky behind him a charcoal grey.

"We want to send a message to the government: stop procrastinating. The people know what you're doing," he said.

Security forces used tear gas to try to clear out the protesters, who responded by throwing rocks.

At least 10 people including police officers were wounded in the resulting skirmishes, a medical source told AFP.

In the holy city of Najaf, youth wrapped in checkered black-and-white scarves and carrying Iraqi flags lit tyres and began a sit-in on a main road leading to the capital.

Rallies swelled in the cities of Diwaniyah, Kut, Amara and Nasiriyah, where most government offices, schools and universities have been shuttered for months.

Protesters are demanding early elections based on a reformed voting law, a new prime minister to replace current caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi and that officials deemed corrupt be held to account.

Abdel Mahdi resigned nearly two months ago, but political parties have thus far failed to agree on a successor and he has continued to run the government as a caretaker.

Demonstrators have publicly rejected the names circulating as possible replacements and are furious that other sweeping reform measures have not been implemented.

"We began to escalate today because the government did not respond to our demands, notably forming an independent government that could save Iraq," said Haydar Kadhim, a demonstrator from Nasiriyah.

"Last Monday, we gave them a deadline of seven days. That deadline ends tonight," Kadhim told AFP.

The rallies are the largest and bloodiest grassroots movement in Iraq in decades, with nearly 460 people dead and over 25,000 wounded since they erupted on October 1.

While the violence at the protests themselves has dropped slightly, activists say they face an escalating campaign of intimidation, kidnapping and assassination attempts.