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Iraqi PM Introduces Reforms in Face of Mass Protests

Protesters gather to demonstrate against government's corruption in Iraq
Protesters chant anti-Iraqi government slogans in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, 7 August 2015. Photo AP /Karim Kadim

On 13 September 2015, Iraqi anti-riot police units dispersed protesters in Babil, a governorate south of the capital Baghdad, using ‘excessive force including batons, teargas, water cannons and even firing live ammunition in the air’, according to an article in Almada Press.

The protesters were demanding the removal of Babil’s governor, Sadiq Madlool al-Sultani, said the article, and the dissolution of the council in an attempt to stamp out the rampant corruption and nepotism that has plagued the governorate since the early days of the American occupation (2003-2011). The protesters vowed not to stop until their demands had been met and modern civic structures had been introduced.

Babil is not an isolated case. Since late July, ten of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including Baghdad, have experienced a string of protests. The largest took place in late August when protesters, emboldened by support from the country’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, took to the streets of Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and other cities in the Shiite south, calling for an end to endemic government corruption, more equitable power sharing, judiciary reform, and better electricity, sanitation and healthcare services. .

The current wave of protests was triggered a month early. As temperatures soared past 50°C, frustration at frequent power and water cuts erupted into anger.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded with a package of reforms aimed at curbing corruption and streamlining the government. Al-Sistani weighed in again, criticizing the package for not going far enough. According to his aide, Ahmad al-Safi, the cleric said that al-Abadi needed to be more daring and braver in his reforms.

Despite this criticism, the unusual convergence of voices from among the country’s different and often warring sects, has given Iraqis a rare opening to press their demands on a government that many see as prioritizing the needs of those in power. The ruling elite enjoy significant perks, including large security details, fleets of cars, palatial homes and generous salaries.

Yet in the wake of a parliamentary vote on 11 August , which overwhelmingly ratified al-Abadi’s plan and won the notional support of most political blocs and religious parties, questions are being asked about how much the PM – regarded as a weak leader beholden to his patrons – can do to bring about change.

Iraqis still seem embittered by the American invasion. “Iraqis in general blame the US government [for choosing to] fund, train and support the present, corrupt Iraqi government,” Kamal Kabar, an Iraqi-American human rights activist and journalist who recently returned to the US from Baghdad, told US News.

Tackling corruption is not the only task facing al-Abadi. Large parts of the country including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Ramadi in the prominently Sunni Anbar province, remain under the control of Islamic State militants. Efforts to retake Ramadi have so far fallen short.

An article published earlier this month by the Tehran-based Fars News Agency quoted Faleh al-Isawi, a senior official at the Anbar provincial council, as saying that “the operation to liberate Ramadi City has witnessed a setback to reduce the losses in lives, equipment and infrastructure.”

However, there are signs that a battle may be imminent. Iraqi media report that more than 10,000 troops from the country’s police and army have been mobilized. In addition, US fighter jets have increased activity over Ramadi and other parts of Anbar. The Iraqi newspaper Al Mada reported on 14 September that for the first time since their arrival in the area last June, American jets conducted mock raids over the area in what appeared to be a rehearsal.

In the meantime, the protests in Baghdad and other major cities continue with varying intensity and no end in sight.