Iraqi parties discuss new PM amid protests

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A new voting law has been a key demand of Iraqi protesters and is now a centrepiece of the government’s proposed reforms to appease demonstrators. HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP

Iraqi politicians gathered in Baghdad on Tuesday to discuss a way out of two months of protests that brought down the previous government, as violence hit two Shiite shrine cities.

In Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shiite religious leadership, anti-government demonstrators gathered late into the night around the tomb of a cleric who founded a Shiite party.

Armed men in civilian clothes who were guarding the tomb were seen firing shotguns and tear gas at protesters, but medics could not provide an immediate casualty toll.

It is part of a larger complex that has been surrounded for days by demonstrators denouncing the rule of political elites.

Najaf has been a flashpoint since protesters torched the Iranian consulate in the city last Wednesday, accusing Iraq’s eastern neighbour of propping up a corrupt government in Baghdad.

Around two dozen protesters have died since, and the governor has called on the central government to put an end to the violence.

Influential tribal dignitaries have also tried to mediate and on Tuesday they called on populist cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades) to intervene, according to a statement by Sadr’s office. He has yet to respond.

Sadr was a key sponsor of outgoing prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi after having won the lion’s share of seats in parliament in a May 2018 general election.

But he backed the protests early on and instructed his fighters to “protect” demonstrators from security forces.

In the shrine city of Karbala, renewed street clashes between protesters and security forces raged late into the night.

Riot police fired live rounds and tear gas at the crowds.

Protests also continued in other parts of the south against the central government and Iran, whose point man for Iraqi affairs Qasem Soleimani is in Iraq for talks.

The US said that Soleimani’s presence, also head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm, showed that Iran was again “interfering” in Iraq, accusing Tehran of having “exploited” the neighbouring country.

David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, also called the weekend killing of 40 protesters in the flashpoint city of Nasiriyah “shocking and abhorrent.”

“We call on the government of Iraq to investigate and hold accountable those who attempt to brutally silence peaceful protesters,” he told reporters in Washington.

Protesters hit the streets in October in Iraq’s capital and Shiite-majority south to denounce the ruling system as corrupt, inept and under the sway of foreign powers.

Despite the oil wealth of OPEC’s second-biggest crude producer, one in five Iraqis lives in poverty and youth unemployment stands at one quarter, the World Bank says.

Demonstrators say such systemic problems require more deep-rooted solutions than Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi’s resignation.

“We demand the entire government be changed from its roots up,” Mohammad al-Mashhadani, a doctor protesting in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, said on Monday.

The government and political sources said parties were considering a “transitional” cabinet to oversee electoral reform before an early parliamentary vote.

“This process will take no less than six months,” the official said.

A new voting law has been a key demand of protesters as well as Sistani and is now a centrepiece of the government’s proposed reforms.

On Monday, Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi held meetings with the main legislative blocs, the UN and parliament’s legal committee to discuss a draft law.