Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi will step down if parliament’s main blocs agree on a replacement, the country’s president said, but thousands of protesters maintain resignation would not be enough.
People from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides thronged Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in a show of fury at an elite they see as corrupt, beholden to foreign powers and responsible for daily privations and shambolic public services.
More than 250 people have died in clashes with security forces and paramilitary groups since protests began on October 1 and swelled into the worst mass unrest in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
Abdul Mahdi, who, despite promises of reforms and a broad reshuffle of his cabinet, has struggled to address the demands. He refused calls for an early election made by his erstwhile main supporter, populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“The prime minister previously agreed to submit his resignation, if the blocs agree on an acceptable replacement to adhere to constitutional and legal frameworks,” President Barham Salih said in a live televised address.
Abdul Mahdi said it would be quicker if Sadr and main rival Hadi al-Amiri agreed on a replacement and would prevent months of chaos.
At the behest of Iran, which exerts great influence on Iraqi politics, Amiri rejected Sadr’s push to oust Abdul Mahdi after meeting top militia commanders in his bloc, sources with knowledge of the talks told Reuters.
While political elites jostle over Abdul Mahdi’s fate, Iraqis on the streets demand an end to the entire governing system of identity-based, sectarian powersharing.
“Today we are at a stage where our demand ceiling is higher than the prime minister’s removal, The people of Iraq want a complete overhaul of the political system,” said protester Salman Khairallah (27) who wore a tee-shirt emblazoned “We dream of a new Iraq”.
“We want a pluralistic democracy that lifts this society from the pit we’ve been driven into for the past 16 years.”
Early elections cannot be held until a new electoral law is passed, Salih said, adding he expected a bill to be introduced in parliament next week.
It took more than six months of negotiations before Abdul Mahdi was appointed a year ago and finding a successor all political factions agree on will not be easy.
He emerged as a compromise candidate between Amiri – who leads an alliance of Iran-backed Shi’ite militia fighters that holds the second-largest amount of seats in parliament – and Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric who heads the largest bloc.
Many see the political class as subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s main allies, the United States and Iran. These powers, they say, use Iraq as a proxy to pursue a struggle for regional influence, without concern for the needs of Iraqis.
“Today the best of the Iraqi people are here against those corrupt traitors, the lowest run of society. God willing, their days are numbered and their place is the dustbin of history,” said a protester who identified himself as Abu Motaz.
The number of protesters on Thursday appeared larger than any other day since a second wave of the protests on Friday after stopping for two weeks.
Many families, young women and older people joined protests as they gained momentum and appeared safer, at least in daytime hours.
Many took selfies and a group of teenage girls drew murals.
Protesters set up more makeshift tents and mattresses for the larger numbers planning to stay overnight.
Hundreds squeezed into a high-rise building known as the Turkish Restaurant they claimed as a symbolic base.
By day, security forces generally used restrained force against protesters, but after nightfall violence surged as demonstrators dwindled and drawn frequent volleys of teargas.
While the overall level of violence eased, security forces killed three protesters overnight and early Thursday.
More than 50 protesters were injured.
Amnesty International said security forces were using “previously unseen” teargas canisters modelled on military grenades 10 times heavier than standard ones.
Protests took place in seven provinces, mostly in the southern Shi’ite heartland. Thousands gathered in Nassiriya, Diwaniya and oil-rich Basra while hundreds hit the streets in Hilla, Samawa, and the Shi’ite holy city Najaf.
Hundreds gathered in the eastern, communally mixed province of Diyala bordering Iran.