ANTI-CORRUPTION PROTESTS GROW IN IRAQ
BAGHDAD – Tens of thousands of demonstrators protested in Baghdad and Iraq’s southern provinces on Friday, calling for real reforms and an end to political corruption.
Thousands more rallied in Najaf, Basra and other cities across the Shia southern heartland following a call from powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in what a senior security official called the biggest protest of the summer.
The capital and many southern cities have witnessed demonstrations in recent weeks calling for provision of basic services, the trial of corrupt politicians, and the shake-up of a system riddled with graft and incompetence.
Protesters’ demands, which initially aimed at improving power supply amid a sweltering heat-wave, have focused more on encouraging Abadi to accelerate reforms, put corrupt officials on trial and loosen the grip of powerful parties over the state.
“What Abadi has done so far is just casual reform. It’s not the real reforms that most of the Iraqis are looking for,” said Mazen al-Ushaiqer, a civil society leader at the Baghdad rally.
Partly in response to protests earlier this month, Abadi began pushing reforms to a system he says has deprived Iraqis of basic services and undermined the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants.
He announced several measures to combat corruption and mismanagement including scrapping layers of senior government posts, cutting security details and other perks for officials, and encouraging corruption investigations.
Likewise, huge protesters filled main streets of the Shia provinces of the south, demanding for real actions to put reforms into effect.
“People aren’t just protesting over services like water and electricity,” said Sabeeh Zuhair, an engineer from the southern oil hub city of Basra. “It is true that they are an important thing, but there are things that are more important than them.”
On Friday, Abadi directed military commanders to ease civilian access to the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district which is home to many government buildings and several Western embassies.
Checkpoints and concrete barriers have blocked bridges and highways leading to the neighborhood for years, symbolizing the isolation of Iraq’s leadership from its people and wreaking havoc on traffic in the city of 7 million people.
Abadi also ordered the elimination of no-go zones set up by militias and political parties in Baghdad and other cities in response to more than a decade of car bombings.
Security at Friday’s protests was tight and helicopters circled overhead. At the Baghdad protest at least four people were wounded in clashes and security forces detained a handful of youths carrying weapons.
Abadi ordered on Friday the formation of a legal committee to review the ownership of state properties and return illegally gained assets to the state. Critics say some officials have abused their authority to appropriate state-owned properties for personal use.
Top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields authority few Iraqi politicians would openly challenge, has called on Abadi to “strike with an iron fist” against corruption.
On Friday, he cautioned protesters against letting personal goals distract from their demands while urging politicians to provide tangible results of reform measures.