x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Three Iraqis die in anti-corruption protest as crowd rampages

Three men killed, dozens wounded as 2,000 protesters in Kut demanding end to corruption set fire to the governor¿s office.

AZIZIYAH // Protesters demanding jobs, better public services and an end to corruption took over provincial government buildings in the Iraqi town of Kut yesterday, chasing out officials, burning the governor's office and setting fire to security outposts.

Three civilians were killed and dozens more wounded when police fired on a crowd of 2,000 demonstrators.

Last night protesters remained in council offices, defying a curfew and refusing to leave until their demands were met.

After a brief lull in the afternoon, violent clashes resumed when police tried to regain control of the offices.

Ala Khadim, an unemployed man from Kut, the administrative capital of Wasit province, took part in the protest. He said the intention had been to stage a peaceful rally, but that a dismissive response from local politicians had ignited an outburst that quickly spread.

"We went to the government buildings and wanted to speak to the politicians but one of them was very disrespectful and told us we were wasting our time," he said. "Then we saw new armoured cars for the officials parked in the compound and the crowd went crazy."

Expensive armoured jeeps, usually driven by officials and their entourages in speeding convoys, have become symbolic of the difference between the wealthy, politically connected elite and Iraq's poor.

After seeing the new vehicles parked outside the government offices, the crowd overwhelmed the guards, smashed the gates and occupied the buildings. Officials, apparently including the provincial governor, fled. Police used water cannons and smoke grenades in an effort to disperse the crowd, to little avail.

Other demonstrations also took place in Diwaniya, Fallujah and Nasariyah yesterday.

The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, has moved to placate critics in recent weeks. He promised not to run for a third term of office, halved his salary and put tax increases on hold in an attempt to win over public opinion.

Yesterday the government also announced it would cut ministers' and MPs' salaries by up to 50 per cent. MPs earn US$11,000 (Dh40,401) a month, excluding perks such as interest-free loans, expense accounts and business opportunities.

But such measure were too little and too late, according to Ala Allawi, a political analyst from Wasit province.

"None of that has stopped the protests. People want serious change," he said. "Yes, they voted for these politicians but now the message is clear. They have had enough of them. They want them gone and they want new, professional, uncorrupted people running the country.

"Even al Maliki's supporters are turning against him now, his image has been badly tarnished since the elections."

It has been almost a year since the nation voted and the Iraqi government still has not been properly seated, amid lingering political squabbles. The national budget has not been approved - also because of political fighting - and power-sharing agreements designed to promote national unity remain unimplemented. Ordinary Iraqis have concluded that politicians don't care about the business of running the country.

Hani Ashour, an official in the Iraqiyya bloc, one of the groups inside the national unity government, said: "The political process is in deep crisis. The situation couldn't be more critical. Failures on many fronts, including to provide basic services or honour the power-sharing deal, have undermined all trust in the government."

nlatif@thenational.ae