Iraqi protesters dig in heels despite new PM-designate

by Ali Choukeir
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An Iraqi protester flashes the victory sign in the holy city of Najaf where demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres to protest against the nomination of Mohammad Allawi as the country's new prime minister

Furious anti-government youth in Iraq's capital and south on Sunday rejected the nomination of Mohammad Allawi as prime minister, but came up against rival sit-ins by supporters of an influential cleric backing the new premier.

Allawi was named prime minister-designate after a hard-won consensus among Iraq's rival parties, who had struggled to agree on a candidate since outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned under growing street pressure two months ago.

Mass rallies have rocked Baghdad and the mainly-Shiite south since October, with protesters demanding snap elections and an independent prime minister as well as accountability for corruption and recent bloodshed.

Young demonstrators have expressed contempt for the ruling elite and on Sunday, they slammed Allawi -- a former lawmaker and minister -- as part and parcel of the system they want to overhaul.

"We are here to reject the new prime minister because he has a well-known history within the political class," said 22-year-old university student Tiba protesting in Baghdad.

Hundreds of students flooded the streets around the capital's main protest camp of Tahrir Square, carrying pictures of Allawi with an "X" over his face.

They blared upbeat Arabic music through speakers to drown out somber Islamic hymns played by demonstrators loyal to populist cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Sadr backed the protests in October but has split with the main movement over Allawi, whose designation he welcomed as a "good step".

Dozens of hardcore Sadrists responded by storming a key Baghdad building known as the Turkish restaurant, a symbol of the uprising, to drive out activists and remove banners listing their demands.

- 'A mockery' -

Late Sunday Sadr posted new tweets condemning student sit-ins and road closures -- the two main tactics used by anti-government demonstrators.

"No burning, no cutting, no ignorance, no disobedience," he tweeted late Sunday, even while insisting, "I loved the October revolution... It and I are one."

Despite his appeal, angry protesters in the holy city of Najaf blocked roads with burning tyres and held up a sign reading "Mohammad Allawi is rejected, by order of the people!"

In Diwaniyah, further south, protesters marched into government buildings to demand they close for the day while students began sit-ins at schools and universities.

"Naming Mohammad Allawi is a mockery," one demonstrator there told AFP.

"It represents a total disregard for those killed in the protests and for the demands of the Iraqi people who have been demonstrating for four months to reject parties affiliated with Iran."

In addition to calls for better services and an end to graft, demonstrators have accused Iraq's ruling elite of being beholden to powerful neighbour Iran.

Tehran has seen its influence grow in Iraq since the US-led invasion that toppled ex-dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Allawi, 65, launched his political career in the aftermath of the invasion, first as a parliamentarian and then twice as communications minister under former premier Nuri al-Maliki.

But he resigned both times, alleging mass graft in a country considered among the top 20 most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

- Obstacles ahead -

His appointment came after days of crisis talks prompted by President Barham Saleh, who said he would select his own candidate if Iraq's parliamentary blocs did not nominate someone by Saturday.

The negotiations were very secretive and it remains unclear what finally unlocked a deal, but on Saturday evening Allawi announced his own nomination in a video posted to Twitter.

There has been no official statement from Saleh.

Abdel Mahdi has congratulated his successor and the pair met on Sunday.

The outgoing PM said he would no longer conduct high-level meetings or take major decisions, in order not to interfere with his successor's preparations. He pledged "a smooth transition process."

In his first public remarks, Allawi vowed to form a representative government, hold early parliamentary elections and ensure justice for protest-related violence.

More than 480 people have died and nearly 30,000 have been wounded since the rallies began on October 1, but few have been held accountable for the bloodshed.

Allawi has one month to form a government, but ensuring an independent line-up may prove a challenge, said Sajad Jiyad of the Iraq-based think tank the Bayan Center.

"If we've learned anything from the previous PM, it's that this is the most difficult part: pushing back against the political blocs' demands," Jiyad told AFP.

In Iraq, cabinets are typically formed after complex horsetrading whereby parties demand lucrative and influential ministerial posts based on their share of parliament.

If Allawi fails to resist ministerial candidates proposed by parties, "it will back up what protesters are saying" about his allegiance to the factions, Jiyad added.

An Iraqi protester flashes the victory sign in the holy city of Najaf where demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres to protest against the nomination of Mohammad Allawi as the country's new prime minister

Iraqi protesters demanding an independent premier say Allawi is part and parcel of the system they want to overhaul

In Baghdad, hundreds of students flooded the streets around the main protest camp of Tahrir Square, demonstrating against Allawi's appointment

Iraqi President Barham Saleh (R) presented Allawi with the decree to appoint him as Iraq's new prime minister on February 1, 2020