Iraqi politicians and their regional allies gathered in Baghdad on Tuesday to discuss how to resolve two months of protests that brought down the government, as violence hit southern cities.
Demonstrators demanding reform have flooded the capital and the Shiite-majority south since October, in the largest grassroots movement the country has witnessed in years.
Seen as a threat to the ruling elite, rallies were met with violence from security forces and armed groups, leaving nearly 430 people dead and 20,000 wounded, the vast majority demonstrators.
After violence increased last week, prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned and talks to find a replacement intensified this week.
Among those attending the negotiations are two key allies of Iraq’s main Shiite parties: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Qasem Soleimani and Lebanese power-broker Mohammad Kawtharany, a high-ranking political source told AFP.
“Soleimani is in Baghdad to push for a particular candidate to succeed Abdel Mahdi,” the source said, without providing details.
Kawtharany, who is Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s pointman on Iraq, “is also playing a large role in persuading Shiite and Sunni political forces on this,” the source added.
Political powers in Shiite-majority Iraq have long had close ties with counterparts in Iran and Lebanon, with the United States saying Soleimani’s presence showed its archfoe Iran was again “interfering” in Iraq.
Late Tuesday, five rockets slammed into a western Iraqi base where US troops are stationed, with no casualties or damage reported by the Iraqi security forces.
Kurds seek to keep ‘gains’
The United Nations envoy to Iraq called on decision-makers to act fast in response to demands for change.
“Political leaders do not have the luxury of time and must rise to the moment,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said on Tuesday.
Demonstrators have protested rampant corruption, lack of jobs and poor public services.
Despite the oil wealth of OPEC’s second-biggest producer, one in five Iraqis lives in poverty and youth unemployment stands at one quarter, the World Bank says.
Protesters say such problems require more deep-rooted solutions than the resignation of Abdel Mahdi, the first premier to step down since Iraq installed a parliamentary system after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003.
The 77-year-old said it would be a “waste of time” to keep a caretaker cabinet in place, in a hint that a political deal to name a new premier was in the offing.
But any successor would need the approval of divided Shiite factions, Kurdish authorities and Iraq’s key allies, the US and Iran.
The Kurdistan Regional Government supported Abdel Mahdi and is likely worried by his resignation.
The KRG is prioritising keeping a sizeable share of federal government posts and making sure constitutional amendments do not threaten its recent “gains,” said analyst Adel Bakawan.
The Kurdish administration said Tuesday it “hoped for the implementation” of a deal agreed in principle days before the premier’s resignation, granting it a share of the 2020 federal budget in exchange for exporting its oil through the national seller.
Other parties were also seeking guarantees, a government source told AFP, describing discussions as “very difficult.”
Tensions grip shrine cities
Parties are considering a six-month “transitional” cabinet to oversee electoral reform before an early parliamentary vote, government and political sources told AFP.
A new electoral law is a key protest demand and is now a centerpiece of proposed reforms, discussed by key parliamentary blocs on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, protests continue.
In solidarity with southern provinces, hundreds of students marched in the multi-ethnic northern city of Kirkuk on Tuesday, as the Chaldean Catholic Church cancelled Christmas celebrations.
In the shrine city of Najaf, 35 protesters were wounded when plainclothes guards fired shotguns and tear gas on crowds near the tomb of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a cleric who founded a major Shiite political party, medics said.
Najaf has been rocked by violence since protesters torched the Iranian consulate there last Wednesday, accusing Tehran of propping up the government.
Tribal dignitaries called on populist cleric Moqtada Sadr to intervene, his office said. He has yet to respond.
In Karbala, riot police fired live rounds and tear gas at protesters, an AFP correspondent reported.
Police dispatched reinforcements to the flashpoint city of Nasiriyah, where deaths have been highest in recent days, and to Basra.
Some 500 extra officers in Nasiriyah and 150 in Basra reinforced prisons holding accused jihadists, to prevent breakouts amid the chaos.
A judicial source in Nasiriyah told AFP that around 100 criminal complaints had been filed by families of recent victims against a military commander who briefly led a crackdown there.
In Baghdad, authorities announced Tuesday they were releasing 16 detained protesters.
The step came a day after Human Rights Watch accused the government of not doing enough to protect activists.