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 , Staff Writer

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    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.
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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.

“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.

In Baghdad, the protests have been relatively small and scattered, posing little apparent threat to the Iraqi government, which is based almost exclusively in the
heavily-guarded green zone. Their grievances fall into two main categories: anger over basic living conditions and protests against increasing restrictions on personal freedom.

So far, the Baghdad protests have been largely peaceful, but an incident early Monday morning added to recent incidents of violence around the country.

In south-central Iraq last week, Iraqi security forces shot dead at least one protester in the city of Kut after a crowd of demonstrators stormed the provincial council building, climbing in the second-floor windows and setting fire to offices. They were demanding the removal of the provincial governor who has been widely accused of corruption but was, until now, impossible to fire.

Home to much of Iraq’s oil wealth, the south is the poorest region in the country.

The northern Kurdish region, billed as the most stable part of Iraq, has suffered the most violence – and growing protests. At least three demonstrators have been killed by Kurdish security forces since the protests – largely against corruption and nepotism by Kurdistan’s traditional leaders– began.

On Sunday, an independent Kurdish television station that had broadcast the protests was set on fire. Kurdistan’s two major parties fought against each other for years before uniting to fight Saddam Hussein’s forces and now jointly rule the north. Several thousand demonstrators gathered in Suleiymania on Tuesday in one of the largest protests so far in Iraq.

Baghdad protesters report unprovoked attack

In the Iraqi capital, security forces have not publicly interfered in the protests, which have been confined largely to public squares far from the seat of power.

In an incident after midnight on Monday however, a group of demonstrators who had set up a tent for a sit-in in Tahrir Square said they were attacked by a large group of clean-shaven young men in street clothes wielding knives as Iraqi soldiers stood by.

“Everything happened in seconds,” says Kamal Jabar, an organizer of the group that had gathered together a cross-section of Iraqis, including religious officials, for a peaceful demonstration on Saturday. Mr. Jabar, his face bruised, says the gang arrived in civilian cars and started beating and stabbing people while Iraqi Humvees were parked across the street.

The organizers said the unprovoked attack took place after a senior Iraqi Army commander ordered them to leave.

Ali, a protester who wanted only his first name used, lay on the floor on Monday with what was clearly a stab wound in his thigh. His clothing still bloody, he said he had come from the southern town of Nassariyah to look for work when he heard about the protest and was sleeping in the tent when he was attacked.

The Baghdad operations command, responsible for security in the capital, denied that anyone had been attacked in Tahrir square and said the report had been invented by hostile news media.

“I supported this democracy I’m happy Saddam is gone but this is not democracy,” says Jabar, one of the organizers. “The way they acted yesterday, I thought Saddam was still alive.”

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[Editor's note: the original version of this story incorrectly identified the location in which the photo was taken]

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