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Protesters Take To Iraq's Streets Despite Vehicle Ban


WATCH: Thousands of Iraqis took part in a second “Day of Rage” protest against corruption and a lack of basic services. Protesters in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square carried banners calling for reform while police drove back the crowds with batons and water cannon. Video by Reuters

Protesters have gathered in the streets of several Iraqi cities for a new "Day of Rage," but so far without the bloodshed that claimed the lives of at least 16 people a week ago.

A crowd of about 2,000 people descended upon Baghdad's Tahrir Square to cry out against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government over corruption, unemployment, and poor public services.

They chanted, "Liar, Liar, Nuri al-Maliki" and "Oil for the people not for the thieves." They also showed banners reading, "Where has the people's money gone?" and "Yes for democracy and the protection of freedom."

In Mosul, some 3,000 people gathered in Celebration Square, some holding pictures of relatives killed in last Friday's protests.

In the southern city of Al-Basrah, police used water cannon to break up another crowd of protesters.

They later forcibly removed some 700 people who refused to stop demonstrating.

More protests took place the southern cities of Al-Najaf and Nasiriyah, in the central city of Hilla, and in a number of smaller towns.

A protester in Al-Najaf told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that the protesters intended to keep up their activities until they got concessions from the government.

"God willing, we will be patient and go out every Friday until our demands are met," the demonstrator said. "The main demand is a removal of the currently existent corruption, prolific throughout the government. In addition to that, public utilities, food rations, jobs, and financial aid should be supplied. This is my opinion."

The protests, the latest in a month of Friday rallies, took place despite a vehicle ban in the capital and elsewhere.

'Day Of Regret'

On past Fridays, rally organizers have billed the weekly protests as a "Day of Rage." But some organizers were calling this week's event a "Day of Regret" instead to mark one year since Iraq's disputed March parliamentary elections that brought Maliki back to power but left deep rifts between him and his opposition, particularly in the minority Sunni community.

Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government took office in December after a shaky power-sharing deal with Sunni parties. Prior to that deal, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition maintained that because it won the most seats in the March elections it had the right to form the government.

Many Sunnis still feel they were outmaneuvered by Maliki, who later mustered a parliamentary majority and formed the government instead. On March 3, Iraqiya head Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister, said he had turned down a position in the new government.

Tensions have risen as Maliki claims the protests are organized by loyalists of executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and by Al-Qaeda. He has also said the protests only serve the interests of the enemies of Iraq.

The protesters say the charges of being Ba'athists particularly sting. One protester, Finance Ministry employee Ammar Ziad, told reporters today, "We are not Ba'athists, we are just Iraqis asking for simple rights like services."

Cautious Tone

At a joint appearance with President Jalal Talabani on March 3, Maliki urged "citizens who are calling for genuine and legitimate demands" to be on guard against "ill-intentioned people who emerged from the previous protests with the acts of sabotage, beatings, the murder of some police, and damaging state institutions."

So far, the protests have had considerable effect. They have led to the resignations of four top officials -- three southern provincial governors, and Baghdad's mayor. And they have spurred al-Maliki to publicly give his cabinet 100 days to do better to curb corruption and inefficiency or face dismissal.

Key Shi'ite community leaders have refused to endorse the protests, possibly in order not to weaken the government further. But they, too, have separately called upon the government to improve its performance.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraq's political leaders after last Friday's protest to "cancel unacceptable benefits" given to current and former politicians."

In preparation for these latest protests, the Iraqi government has again slapped a ban on vehicles in Baghdad and other key cities. That both makes it difficult for more protesters to reach rally sites and is a security measure against car bombings.

But some city authorities have gone further. The southern city of Nasiriyah has barred anyone from entering the city. In Mosul, protesters were not being allowed near the provincial governorate offices after five demonstrators were killed and one building set ablaze in rallies there last week.

based on agency and RFE/RL reports
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