BAGHDAD // The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki's proposal to impose a two-term limit on all future premiers has received cross-party backing, as the nation's political leaders try to diffuse brewing popular discontent before it gains more momentum.
In recent days, there have been a series of street demonstrations in southern Iraq and Baghdad, some forcefully broken up by the security services, as protesters complain about unemployment, poverty, rising food prices and what is widely viewed as a self-serving ruling class of politicians.
Public protests are planned for today in Basra and Nasariya. A protest in the small town of Hamza, in Diwaniya province, appears to have spread to at least one other town in the area since it began on Thursday.
A security officer in Baghdad said the authorities were taking the potential for nationwide protests "very seriously". He said: "We have been given instructions that the internet and the mobile phone networks will be immediately cut off if that happens."
Mr al Maliki remains a divisive figure, eventually winning another term despite coming in second in national elections last March. After some eight months of political impasse, with a hung parliament, he eventually won the support of coalition partners to hold the premiership again, despite their apparent reluctance. Since being sworn into office little more than a month ago, there have been growing concerns among his political opponents and independent observers inside and outside of Iraq about his desire to concentrate power in his own hands, after recent high court rulings gave him control over previously independent institutions, including the elections commission and anti-corruption watchdog.
The announcement he would not seek a third term and that he hoped to amend the constitution so that all future prime ministers would be restricted to two terms - a total of eight years - has been seen in Iraq as an effort to head off those personal criticisms. That the announcements have received cross-party support is a signal that all political groups feel vulnerable to the growing public anger being aimed their way.
Umar al Jabouri, an MP with the Iraqiyya bloc, said: "A two-term limit for all prime ministers is something we support and it will make sure that democracy will be safeguarded and that Iraq will never again fall to another dictator." Iraqiyya has been vocal in warning that Mr al Maliki was on course to become a new Saddam Hussein.
An independent political analyst, Ahmed al Jenabi, said the decision to back a two-term limit had been made as a pragmatic matter of "political survival", rather than out of a desire to secure democracy.
In reality, he said, it was aimed at establishing dominance by Mr al Maliki's Dawa party, rather than for the man himself.
"Mr al Maliki had to move to publicly to allay suspicions after the protests that have erupted across the Arab world," Mr al Jenabi said. "He and the Dawa party moved before it all blew up in their face and destroyed their long-term project to govern the country."
The Dawa party is one of a number of Shiite religious parties, supported by neighbouring Iran, that have become highly influential in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Mr al Maliki and his advisers see this concession as a way of keeping the Dawa party and its allies in power. The party is more important than any single person in it," Mr al Jenabi said.