Iraqi PM pledges reforms to calm angry protests
The Iraqi government announced a series of reforms early Sunday after an “extraordinary” session overnight in response to sweeping anti-government rallies that have left nearly 100 dead in less than a week.
The United Nations on Saturday urged an end to violence in Iraq, after five days of protests calling for the government to resign.
Confronted by its biggest challenge since coming to power just under a year ago, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s cabinet issued a decree including 17 planned reforms, such as land distributions and increased welfare stipends for needy families.
The decree ordered construction of 100,000 new housing units. In September, local authorities launched demolitions of houses in informal settlements, home to three million Iraqis across the country.
In response to staggering youth unemployment, which has reached around 25 percent according to the World Bank, the government said it would create large market complexes and boost benefits for those without work.
The public sector remains the largest employer in Iraq, a country of 40 million people, but it has struggled to absorb new university graduates in recent years.
In the southern city of Kut last month, a young Iraqi man died after he set himself alight in despair after authorities seized his mobile kiosk.
The government has officially designated those killed as “martyrs,” granting their families a special set of benefits.
The Iraqi Human Rights Commission said Saturday that 99 people have died and nearly 4,000 have been wounded since protests kicked off.
The majority of protesters killed were struck by bullets, according to medical sources, who said on Friday that six police officers have also been killed.
The authorities have accused “saboteurs” and unidentified snipers of targeting protesters.
On Sunday morning, the situation was calm in Baghdad, though with lighter traffic than usual. The capital’s iconic Tahrir Square remained blocked off by security forces.
– ‘This must stop’ –
Parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi pledged a range of reforms in a meeting with lawmakers on Saturday, but did not hold his planned legislative session as the body failed to reach quorum.
Born of calls on social media, the protest movement denounced corruption, unemployment and the decay of public services in a country chronically short of electricity and drinking water.
Iraq is the 12th most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International.
The protests follow Iraq’s declaration of victory over the Islamic State group at the end of 2017 — after nearly four decades of conflict.
Starting Tuesday, protesters gathered in Baghdad and spread to the country’s Shiite-majority south, defying an internet blackout, tear gas and even live rounds.
The mainly male, young crowds say they are not backed by any political or religious establishment and have attacked a broad range of political party offices.
“We don’t want parties anymore. We don’t want anyone to speak in our name,” one protester told AFP on Friday.
Authorities have asked protesters to give them time to implement reform.
“Five days of reported deaths and injuries: this must stop. I call on all parties to pause and reflect,” the head of the UN mission to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, wrote on Twitter.