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Thousands Of Iraqis Protest Poor Services, Government Corruption

Thousands of Iraqis braved the scorching summer heat to stage huge protests in central Baghdad and other cities August 7, denouncing abysmal electricity and other services as well as government corruption.

It was the second Friday of protests across Iraq, perhaps signalling the emergence of a major protest movement.

Demonstrators called on authorities to address the country's chronic shortages of electricity as temperatures soar above 50 degrees Celsius. But with little action from the Shi'ite-dominated government following last week's protests, demonstrators this week intensified calls for a government shake-up.

"Change, that's what we need," said schoolteacher Najlaa Malek, one of the protesters in Baghdad's iconic Tahrir Square. "The problems in this country have become too many to list. And our leaders talk a great deal but then they do nothing to fix them."

Fadal al-Khafaji said he has an engineering degree but sells women's clothing because he can't find a job in his field.

The country's problems include "unemployment, general finances, human rights," he said. "Where are the proceeds from our oil wealth, where is an end to this war we are living through?" he asked. "The only solution is to dissolve the parliament and restore presidential authority."

Nabil Jassem, an organizer of the Baghdad protest, said their demands include improving electricity service and finding a new means of combating corruption.

"If anyone thinks this demonstration is against a minister or a certain official, I want to correct this and say it is against everyone who held and dealt with the energy file from 2003 until now," Jassem said.

He urged Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to take direct responsibility for an energy debacle which has left people with only a few hours of electricity a day despite Iraq being an "energy-rich" country with some of the world's largest oil reserves.

Security forces and riot police sealed off the square and searched anyone who entered the area, but tens of thousands of men, women, and children thronged the sprawling square anyway, many waving Iraqi flags.

"The thieves robbed us," they chanted long into the evening.

Men with the government-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group made up predominantly of Shi'ite militias, pulled up in trucks and handed out ice water bottles to the protesters.

Their gesture was welcomed by roaring shouts in support of the paramilitary force now fighting the Islamic State group. The group was hastily assembled last year, with preexisting militias and new volunteers, to reinforce the Iraqi military after it crumbled in the face of the blitz by the Sunni militant Islamic State (IS) group that seized large parts of the country.

"The government is robbing the Mobilization Forces too!" the protesters cried, with many militia fighters claiming they weren't receiving salaries promised to them.

The emergence of the major protests suggests Abadi is facing his biggest challenges yet as he nears the end of his first year in office, juggling an economic crisis as well as a crippling war with IS.

The combination has put a choke on domestic services, leading to rising discontent from Baghdad to Basra in Iraq's Shi'ite dominated south -- the power base of Abadi and Iraq's top political parties.

In Basra, thousands of demonstrators chanted "No to the parties," while similar protests broke out in the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Nasiriyah, and Diwaniyah.

Underscoring the gravity of the challenges facing Abadi, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in his Friday Prayers sermon called on the prime minister to quickly address corruption in the government.

Abadi already has ordered cuts to top officials' salaries and perks, including subsidized power for their homes, but Sistani said he must go further.

"What is needed from him is to be more daring and braver in his reforms, and not to suffice with some secondary steps which he announced recently," said the cleric's spokesman, Ahmad al-Safi.

"He should strike with an iron fist those who tamper with the people's money.... [He needs] to point to those who slow down reform no matter who they are or what position they hold," Sistani's aide said.

"He should place the right man in the right position, even if he is not a member of the ruling parties and regardless of his sectarian or ethnic affiliation."

Iraq's sectarian sharing system for government positions has been criticized for promoting unqualified candidates and producing mismanagement and corruption.

After the sermon, Abadi said he will follow the "valued guidance of the supreme religious authority" and announce "a comprehensive plan of reform" to fight graft soon.

When Abadi was named premier a year ago, he vowed to form a government based on efficiency and integrity.

But protesters said that the country's domestic problems have been sidelined as a result of the war with IS, and senior government officials are turning a blind eye to problems that have plagued Iraq for decades.

The protesters represented mixed political and religious affiliations, with organizers saying that about 75 percent were liberals, communists, independent, or linked to various youth groups.

Professional groups were on hand, with the members of the lawyers syndicate marching in their judicial robes through the square demanding basic human rights.

Two of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite organizations, Badr and Asaib al-Haq, were represented in smaller numbers, while a few religious clerics attended but kept a low profile.

Iraq's speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jaburi responded to the protests in a televised speech, saying the parliament "will interrogate all the ministers in the government who the protesters demand to be questioned."

Jaburi, Iraq's most senior Sunni politician, said the parliament will pursue "those suspected of theft," but he called on the demonstrators to "exercise their constitutional right" without turning to violence.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
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