Iraq: southern protest movement ignites over government inaction

Demonstrators demand resignation of local officials for corruption and mishandling the coronavirus pandemic

Protesters, some clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, chant slogans as they march in a demonstration in Iraq's central holy shrine city of Najaf on June 5, 2020, with one of them holding up a picture of Shiite Muslim Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.  / AFP / Haidar HAMDANI
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Angry protesters took to the streets of southern Iraq on Monday to vent their frustration with a lack of public services and employment opportunities, calling for the dismissal of local officials.

Hundreds of demonstrators from the southern cities of Najaf, Muthanna, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah clashed with Iraqi security forces amid a revival of the anti-government protests that erupted last October.

"The movement, which is now synchronised between the southern governorates, is now demanding the resignation of officials, especially the dismissal of Najaf Governor Louay Al Yasiri," an Iraqi official told The National.

Riot police gathered in front of government buildings in Najaf late on Sunday to block protesters from entering the building, leading to violent clashes between the two.

The mostly young protesters accuse the political establishment of rampant corruption and are demanding an end to a political system that is divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission called on the government to refrain from using violence against protesters.

"This is a constitutional right [for people to protest] and we urge the government to respond to the economic and social rights that protesters are demanding," Ali Al Bayati, a member of the commission told The National.

“These claims have been made before but have not been implemented although we lost many lives due to months of instability so it’s very important for the new government to provide a main source of livelihood for the public,” Mr Al Bayati said.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered the interior ministry to form a committee to investigate allegations of corruption and misconduct across various governorates after assuming office in late April.

In Muthanna governorate, protesters forced governor Ahmed Mendi to submit his resignation, while protesters in neighbouring Diwaniya governorate blocked the road between the governorate and the eastern Hamza district, demanding the removal of its governor, Zuhair Al Shaalan.

Activist Maitham Khalaf, from Muthanna governorate, said the population is frustrated with the government’s poor response to the public’s demands.

“This is a result of the little actions taken by the local governments who are accused of corruption and have no sympathy towards the public’s poor living conditions,” Mr Khalaf said on Twitter.

Last week, protesters in Dhi Qar province stormed the office of the local health ministry and forced its director general, Abdual Hussain Al Jabri to resign over mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Video footage on social media showed Mr Al Jaberi signing a letter to hand in his notice.

Iraq, which has recorded 13,481 cases and 370 deaths from Covid-19, saw its highest daily spike in coronavirus cases last week.

Public criticism of government handling of the pandemic has been widespread on social media.