Iraq's unhappy public needs to be listened to

Mr al Maliki must recognise that it is not only his future on the line but his country's

Ink-stained fingers, once a symbol of Iraq's democratic aspirations, are now props for parody. As protesters marched on Monday in opposition to leaders they voted into office a year ago, many held high their freshly coloured digits - while others pretended to bite them off.

"Our votes were stolen," one demonstrator in Fallujah said during the so-called "Day of Regret" march. "We swear not to vote again."

Iraq's democratic exuberance is in tatters. A year ago this week, the US president Barack Obama praised elections as an "important milestone in Iraqi history". Today, diplomats cross their fingers that the country's mounting protests don't spiral out of control.

More than anything, though, Iraq's popular uprisings underscore that an unhappy public is no longer content idly watching a kleptocracy emerge. Iraq's leader should take heed.

Broken promises, endemic corruption and a fractured governing coalition have allowed anger to fester. But unlike Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, Iraq has the institutional framework to address people's grievances. Baghdad could theoretically eliminate power outages and increase workers' pay. Iraq's main problem is not its technical abilities, but its political unity.

As The National reported yesterday, Nouri al Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, continues to dither on promised power-sharing deals, and points fingers instead. He's given his cabinet 100 days to reform or face unspecified "changes". He has also accused al Qa'eda and Baathists of encouraging street demonstrations. Both moves are ill-conceived attempts to divert blame from his own leadership.

Mr al Maliki must recognise that it is not only his future on the line, but Iraq's. Both will lose out if he fails to address the grievances of its people.

Of course Mr al Maliki is not the only Iraqi leader hijacking the political process. Leaders at all levels appear unable or unwilling to exercise the will of the public. As the Iraq analyst Reidar Visser noted this week, the inability to "rise above camaraderie and cliquishness" is suffocating any hope of lasting political reform.

Iraqis were promised more. As voters went to the ballot box last March, President Obama proudly declared that "the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq". One year later, it's time for Iraq's leaders to make that hope more of a reality.