Thousands of Iraqis protest corruption, poor services

AFP , Friday 7 Aug 2015

Iraqis shout slogans during a demonstration against power cuts amid an intense heatwave and protesting against what they call corruption and poor services, in Amara, southeast of Baghdad, August 4, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands of demonstrators turned out Friday in Baghdad and southern Iraq to protest against rampant corruption and abysmal electricity services, calling for officials to be held to account.

Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called earlier in the day for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to take a tougher stand against corruption and name and shame those impeding reform.

The demonstrations in the Shia south -- the power base of many of Iraq's top political parties -- and Sistani's calls for change are potentially serious challenges for the Shia-led Iraqi government.

"All of you together to the court, all of you are thieves," chanted protesters gathered at Baghdad's Tahrir Square carrying Iraqi flags.

"Friday after Friday, we'll get the corrupt out."

Some of the protesters caried a coffin covered in black fabric representing the death of the consciences of parliament and politicians, as well the demise of electricity and services.

Thousands of people demonstrated in the southern port city of Basra as well, chanting slogans such as "No, to the parties," and carrying signs including one that read: "It is time for your departure, Oh, you corrupt."

Protesters also aired similar grievances at demonstrations in the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hilla and Nasiriyah.

Baghdad and other cities have seen weeks of protests against the poor quality of services, especially power outages that leave Iraqis with only a few hours of government-supplied electricity per day as temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit).

The demonstrators have blamed the services crisis on corruption and incompetence across the political class.

Nabil Jassem, an organiser of the latest protest in Baghdad, said their demands include improving electricity service and finding a new means of combating corruption.

"If anyone thinks this demonstration is against a minister or a certain official, I want to correct this and say it is against everyone who held and dealt with the energy file from 2003 until now," Jassem told AFP.

He urged Abadi to take direct responsibility for energy affairs.

Abadi took office nearly a year ago promising tough action against corrupt practices that had come to symbolise the tenure of his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki.

Observers argue that while graft may be less open than it once was, the mechanisms of corruption remain in place.

In an attempt to assuage protesters, Abadi has imposed programmed electricity cuts on state institutions and top officials but Sistani said more was needed.

Sistani, who is revered by millions of Iraqis, said Abadi must be firmer in fighting corruption.

"He must be more daring and courageous in his reforms," Ahmed al-Safi, a representative of the reclusive Sistani, said in a sermon delivered in the shrine city of Karbala.

"He should not be satisfied with some minor steps he recently announced," Safi said.

Instead, the government should "make important decisions and take drastic measures to fight corruption and achieve social justice," he said.

"He should make the political parties accountable and identify who is hampering the march of reform, whoever they are," he added.

Abadi reacted immediately and promised to follow Sistani's advice.

"I declare my total commitment to the directions of the religious Marjaiya (Shia religious leadership), which has voiced the concerns and aspirations of the Iraqi people," he said.

The prime minister said that he would draft a plan to fight graft and invited other political parties to contribute.

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