x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Maliki reduces the pressure on the Iraqi streets

Thousands of Iraqis, joining protests across the Arab world, have demonstrated against power shortages, a lack of jobs, poor services and corruption, but prime minister Nouri al Maliki's announcement of a 100-day deadline for his cabinet to shape up has evidently reduced the people's anger for now.

A man waves the Iraqi flag as protesters chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Baghdad on Friday.
A man waves the Iraqi flag as protesters chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Baghdad on Friday.

BAGHDAD // Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, will not solve the country's problems in three months, but by imposing a 100-day deadline on his cabinet to respond to protests he has bought time to consolidate his power.

Thousands of Iraqis, joining protests across the Arab world, have demonstrated against power shortages, a lack of jobs, poor services and corruption.

Mr al Maliki responded by cutting his own pay, reducing electricity bills, buying more sugar for the national food-ration programme and diverting money from fighter jets to food handouts. As rallies grew in size, Mr al Maliki gave his newly seated cabinet a 100-day ultimatum to shape up or face dismissal.

His moves appear to have eased some of the pressure on the street. Protests have diminished in size in the past two weeks, and only a few hundred people attended a demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Friday.

No one believes 100 days is enough time to repair a country damaged by decades of war, economic sanctions and political paralysis. But the deadline serves notice on former foes that Mr Maliki reluctantly brought into his cabinet after an inconclusive election last year.

An Iraqi political analyst, Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, said: "These demands need years to be met, not 100 days, But it is obvious that he is trying to absorb the anger of demonstrators and then direct this anger against the inefficient ministers."

Mr al Maliki formed his government for a second term in late December, bringing Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions into a coalition after nine months of wrangling.

From the outset, he said he was not satisfied with the cabinet, complaining he was forced to accept some ministers to win the blessing of parliament.

The recent protests effectively give him an opportunity to revisit the coalition agreement, blame ministers for Iraq's woes, and replace them.

One politician, Walid al Hilli, who is a member of Mr al Maliki's Dawa Party, said: "With this cabinet, Maliki does not have real control over his ministers because it is a national partnership government.

"Maliki is not responsible: it is the cabinet," he said. "But Maliki is not ready to continue with a government that is unable to meet people's demands. Eventually Maliki may go to the parliament to sack them."

In a sign of the divisions that remain within the cabinet, the deputy prime minister, Saleh al Mutlaq, said last week that Mr al Maliki himself should step down if the government fails to meet the 100-day target to improve.

Despite growing oil revenue, Iraq is struggling to rebuild its economy and infrastructure.

Iraqis are frustrated by the slow progress in the eight years since a US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. There is little clean running water, no proper sewage system and the national grid supplies a few hours of power a day.

Many of the protests have taken place outside of the capital, in provinces where demonstrators are seeking to remove powerful regional bosses seen as corrupt. Mr al Maliki could strengthen his position by removing provincial officials.

Meanwhile, he is announcing measures to soften public anger. He has asked his cabinet to create new jobs and said provincial governments might be able to buy and distribute food rations directly rather than through the central government.

He already asked three governors to step down and has suggested he may call for early provincial elections.

Another politician, Safia al Souhail, said: "Maliki can't find solutions to all these problems in 100 days. But he can give the impression that he is positively responding to these demands. This may ease the people."