UPDATED: Iraqi protesters dig in heels despite new PM-designate

AFP , Sunday 2 Feb 2020

Masked anti-government protester stand before flaming tyres at a make-shift roadblock in the central Iraqi holy shrine city of Najaf on February 1, 2020 (Photo: AP)

Furious anti-government youth dug in their heels in Iraq's capital and south on Sunday, rejecting the previous evening's nomination of Mohammad Allawi as premier after months of demonstrations and political paralysis.

Allawi was named prime minister-designate after a hard-won consensus among Iraq's rival parties, who had struggled to agree on a candidate since outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned under growing street pressure two months ago.

Mass rallies have rocked Baghdad and the mainly-Shiite south since October, with protesters demanding snap elections and an independent prime minister as well as accountability for corruption and recent bloodshed.

Young demonstrators have expressed contempt for the ruling elite and on Sunday, they slammed Allawi -- a former lawmaker and minister -- as part and parcel of the system they want to overhaul.

"Mohammad Allawi is rejected, by order of the people!" read a new sign hung in the holy city of Najaf on Sunday.

Young men with their faces wrapped in checkered scarves had spent the night torching car tyres in anger at Allawi's nomination and smouldering remains still blocked the main roads on Sunday, an AFP reporter there said.

In Diwaniyah, further south, protesters marched into government buildings to demand they close for the day while students began sit-ins at schools and universities.

Protesters in Hillah blocked off all roads leading into the city and chanted, "Allawi is not the people's choice!"

Students revolt in Baghdad

In Baghdad, hundreds of students flooded the streets around the main protest camp of Tahrir Square, carrying Allawi's photograph with an "X" over his face.

"We are here to reject the new prime minister because he has a well-known history within the political class," said 22-year-old university student Tiba.

Allawi, 65, served as a parliamentarian immediately after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, then was twice appointed communications minister under former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

But he resigned both times, accusing Maliki of turning a blind eye to graft in a country considered among the top 20 most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

His appointment came after days of crisis talks prompted by President Barham Saleh, who said he would select his own candidate if the political blocs of Iraq's parliament did not nominate someone by Saturday.

Allawi had been among the top contenders for the post, but the stalemate continued into the late afternoon, Iraqi government sources told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The talks were very secretive and it remains unclear what finally unlocked a deal, but on Saturday evening, Allawi announced his own nomination in a video posted to Twitter.

There was no official statement from Saleh, but Abdel Mahdi congratulated his successor and the pair pledged to meet soon to ensure a smooth transition.

Sadr seeks to curb rallies 

In his first formal address, Allawi vowed to form a representative government, hold early parliamentary elections and ensure justice for protest-related violence.

More than 480 people have died and nearly 30,000 have been wounded since the rallies began on October 1, but few have been held accountable for the bloodshed.

Allawi has one month to form his government, but ensuring its independence may prove a challenge, said Sajad Jiyad of the Iraq-based think tank the Bayan Center.

"If we've learned anything from the previous PM, it's that this is the most difficult part: pushing back against the political blocs' demands," Jiyad told AFP.

In Iraq, cabinets are typically formed after complex horsetrading whereby parties demand lucrative and influential ministerial posts based on their share of parliament.

If Allawi fails to resist ministerial candidates proposed by parties, "it will back up what protesters are saying" about his allegiance to the factions, Jiyad added.

Among the most powerful of Iraq's political players is populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, who welcomed Allawi's nomination on Saturday as a "good step".

Sadr backed the protests in October and his die-hard followers are widely recognised as the most organised and well-equipped among anti-government demonstrators.

But on Sunday, Sadr ordered members of his movement to organise with security forces to reopen roads and schools, contrary to what other protesters across Iraq were doing.

"The revolution must go back to being restrained and peaceful," Sadr wrote on Twitter.

That tweet and his endorsement of Allawi were seen as a betrayal by other protesters in Baghdad, who chanted "Don't tweet however you please," hinting at Sadr, and "We are a young, leaderless revolution!"

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