Iraq protests swell with youth angry at slow pace of reform

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Iraqi anti-government demonstrators march near Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital Baghdad

Iraqi anti-government demonstrators march near Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital Baghdad (AFP Photo/SABAH ARAR)

Baghdad (AFP) - Iraqi youth angry at their government's glacial pace of reform ramped up their protests on Sunday, sealing streets with burning tyres and threatening further escalation unless their demands are met.

The rallies demanding an overhaul of the ruling system have rocked Shiite-majority parts of Iraq since October, but had thinned out in recent weeks amid rising Iran-US tensions.

Protesters had feared Iraq would be caught in the middle of the geopolitical storm and last Monday gave the government one week to make progress on reform pledges.

A day before the deadline expires, hundreds of angry young people descended on the main protest camp in Baghdad's Tahrir Square as well as nearby Tayaran Square.

They burned tyres to block highways and bridges, turning back cars and causing traffic jams across the city.

At least 10 people including police officers were wounded when security forces tried to clear the sit-ins with tear gas and protesters responded by throwing rocks, medical and security sources told AFP.

"This is only the first escalation," one protester with a scarf wrapped around his face told AFP, as smoke from the tyres turned the sky behind him a charcoal grey.

"We want to send a message to the government: Stop procrastinating! The people know what you're doing," he said, adding ominously: "Tomorrow the deadline ends, and then things could get totally of control."

Protesters are demanding early elections based on a reformed voting law, a new prime minister to replace current caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi and that officials deemed corrupt be held to account.

Abdel Mahdi resigned nearly two months ago, but political parties have thus far failed to agree on a successor and he has continued to run the government as a caretaker.

- 'Deadline ends tonight' -

Demonstrators have publicly rejected the names circulating as possible replacements and are furious that other sweeping reform measures have not been implemented.

"We began to escalate today because the government did not respond to our demands, notably forming an independent government that could save Iraq," said Haydar Kadhim, a demonstrator in the southern protest hotspot of Nasiriyah.

"Last Monday, we gave them a deadline of seven days. That deadline ends tonight," Kadhim told AFP.

A fellow protester, 20-year-old university student Mohammad Kareem, said more escalation could come.

"We gave the government a timeframe to implement our demands, but it looks like it doesn't care one bit," he said.

"We will keep up our movement and keep escalating to confront this government, which continues to procrastinate," Kareem told AFP.

Rallies also swelled in the cities of Kut, Diwaniyah and Amara, where most government offices, schools and universities have been shuttered for months.

In the holy city of Najaf, youth wrapped in checkered black-and-white scarves and carrying Iraqi flags lit tyres and began a sit-in on a main road leading to the capital.

Further the south in the oil-rich port city of Basra, students gathered in an ongoing strike in support of the rallies elsewhere.

- Rival rallies -

The protests are the largest and bloodiest grassroots movement in Iraq in decades, with nearly 460 people dead and over 25,000 wounded since they erupted on October 1.

While the violence at the protests themselves has dropped slightly, activists say they face an escalating campaign of intimidation, kidnapping and assassination attempts.

Young protesters are also apprehensive about a rival protest on January 24 organised by firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr in order to pressure US forces to leave.

Last week, Sadr urged Iraqis to hold "a million-strong, peaceful, unified demonstration to condemn the American presence and its violations".

Iraqi political figures have ramped up their calls for foreign forces -- including some 5,200 US troops -- to leave the country following a US drone strike that killed Iran's revered Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi military official Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Both were key brokers in Iraq's political scene, which has been left reeling by their absence.

Iraq's parliament voted on January 5 in favour of ousting foreign forces but the legal procedure for doing so remains murky.

Bases where US forces are stationed have been under a steady stream of rocket attacks for several months that have killed one American contractor and one Iraqi soldier.