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Iraqi officials bend to protesters' demands

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he would personally oversee food rationing for the poor, while Baghdad's provincial chief promised to fire corrupt officials. A major rally is planned for Friday.

By Jane ArrafStaff Writer / February 22, 2011

An Iraqi man waves a national flag during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Feb. 22. A number of Iraqis gathered in central Baghdad to demonstrate against corruption and the lack of government services.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

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Baghdad, Iraq

In an apparent bid to deflate a major protest planned for Friday, the head of Baghdad’s provincial council on Tuesday promised to fire corrupt and inept officials, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he was personally overseeing the availability of sugar and other items provided to the poor.

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“We have listened to the demonstrators,” said provincial leader Kamal al-Zaidy, after meeting with council members and parliamentarians to address a lack of government services. “There are some departments whose performance is decreasing in a way that would make the Baghdad provincial council be ready to take essential decisions to fire executive staff.”

Iraqis inspired by protests sweeping the Arab world have been airing their grievances in the street almost every day. Much of their anger is directed at officials they blame for electricity cuts, lack of jobs, and lack of government services in a country believed to have the world’s second-largest oil reserves.

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For officials, the daily demonstrations have been a gauge of simmering discontent that in some places have bubbled over into public rage. Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a member of the opposition Iraqiya party, suspended parliament for a week on Monday, directing lawmakers to go out to their home constituencies to listen to complaints and try to find solutions.

Mr. Nujaifi also said parliament would reopen corruption cases believed to have been closed for political reasons and thought responsible for siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds.

Anger over corruption, lack of jobs

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has already announced other measures, such as plans to cut his salary in half and to delay the purchase of American fighter jets in favor of more aid to the poor, on Tuesday took direct oversight of food rationing for the poor.

Since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which sparked international trade sanctions that lasted more than a decade, Iraqis have been entitled to basic foods such as rice and flour at almost no cost. The hugely expensive program, however, has been hampered by mismanagement and corruption and is a major focus of public anger.

But lack of jobs is also a key concern for Iraqis.

At a demonstration near one of the entrances to the Green Zone on Friday, an Iraqi Army general sent out to talk to the protesters and protected by a dozen soldiers stood behind barbed wire, while a group of Iraqi men poured out their complaints.

“You are our brothers,” said one of the young men to the soldiers. “We want those people inside to tell us where are the jobs.” The Army general, who had no name tag and would not give his name, was standing in the same area where young American soldiers faced crowds of Iraqis in 2003 demanding to talk to officials inside.

Approval granted for Friday protests

Mr. Zaidy, the head of Baghdad's provincial council, said the advance approval required for public demonstrations had been granted to protesters planning of what some organizers have termed a “Day of Rage" on Friday.

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