Iraq protests push for reforms but won't oust govt

BAGHDAD Sat Feb 26, 2011 2:36pm IST

Residents demonstrate in central Baghdad February 25, 2011.  REUTERS/Saad Shalash/Files

Residents demonstrate in central Baghdad February 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Saad Shalash/Files

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Protests by Iraqis are unlikely to rival the uprisings that rocked the Arab world and ousted two regimes, but they will pressure the new government to step up reforms for fear of being asked to resign.

Thousands took to the street on Friday in a nationwide "Day of Rage" inspired by anti-government demonstrations that have spread across the region like wildfire in recent weeks.

Popular revolutions mobilised by youths using social media unseated Tunisia and Egypt's presidents, and threatened long-ruling leaders in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.

But unlike their regional counterparts, demonstrators in Iraq have rallied against poor basic services such as shortages of food rations, clean water, electricity, and jobs, rather than trying to topple their elected federal government.

The protests will pressure the new government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step up reforms to curb growing dissent but they will not force the cabinet, installed only two months ago, to step down, at least not for now, analysts said.

"The government needs to understand that these protests raise a very strong alarm...The fear of judgment, scandals and dismissal will make them (politicians) work hard and respond to the people's demands," Iraqi analyst Hashim al-Habobi said.

"Will what happened in Tunisia and Egypt happen in Iraq? It cannot, because there is no one who brings Iraqis together," he said. "But protesters always start with certain demands and wait for a response... There is a fine line between demanding reforms and demanding to oust (a government)."

Despite its vast oil reserves, the OPEC member is still trying to shake off years of war, sanctions and sabotage and rebuild its battered economy and crumbling infrastructure.

But Iraqis are fed up by the slow development of their governments. There is little clean running water and no proper sewage system. The national grid supplies only a few hours of power a day, eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, promising Iraqis a free and prosperous future.

Analysts said demonstrators are still not united in their demands, which would take years to address, but they may ask for the removal of the government eventually if there are no concrete steps to calm their simmering anger.

"At this stage protests are focused on the government's inability to provide better public services," said Gala Riani of IHS Global Insight.

"It is possible that if protests become severe that the government will struggle to keep itself together."

A wave of demonstrations in the past weeks forced Maliki to soothe anger by cutting his pay, reducing electricity bills, buying more sugar for the national food ration programme and diverting money from fighter jets to food.

DEMANDING BETTER OF EVERYTHING

Protesters in the oil hub of Basra demanded the governor and members of the provincial council step down.

They raised their shoes in their hands, a sign of contempt, and carried small oil lanterns, to demonstrate the lack of electricity, a major complaint among Iraqis.

"The people demand the reform of the regime", "No to corruption", and "Have compassion for the oppressed prisoners", were some of the slogans on banners or chanted by demonstrators.

In the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, thousands of demonstrators poured into the city's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, either holding the Iraqi flag or wrapping themselves in it. They ranted about the poor sewage and education systems, and a lack of jobs.

"I came here because I want a better standard of living," said 54-year-old Zuhair Abdul-Khaleq, a Baghdad taxi driver. "There is no electricity, no water. I don't have a pension. I don't have food rations or a share in the oil."

Some protesters demanded a change in the government and that the newly elected parliament fulfils its electoral promises. Maliki's Shi'ite-led government was seated in late December after months of tense negotiations between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions after an inconclusive vote last March.

"For now, the government may continue to take measures such as raising electricity subsidies and tackling corruption, to pacify the angry population," said Riani. "However, many of the grievances ... will take years to address."

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