Hundreds defy social distancing to join anti-govt protests in Iraq

Hundreds of Iraqis gathered in central Baghdad for fresh anti-government protests demanding better living conditions and an overhaul of the country’s political system, just days after the formation of a new government.

The gathering in Tahrir Square on Sunday came after Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the country’s new prime minister, promised to release demonstrators arrested during the mass protests that erupted in October last year.

Following his first cabinet meeting, al-Kadhimi on Saturday also pledged justice and compensation to relatives of more than 550 people killed since the start of the popular demonstrations.

The prime minister was Iraq’s spy chief when the protests – the bloodiest in Iraq’s recent history – broke out, and his pledges came as calls spread on social media for renewed demonstrations on Sunday.

Sunday’s protests stretched to other areas, including Iraq’s southern city of al-Nasriya.

The gathering was the “most significant” since March 17, when a curfew was imposed in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Hundreds of people gathered in Tahrir Square with some manning the barricades on top of Republican Bridge.

The formation of the new government came some six months after former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has been leading a caretaker administration, resigned in the face of the mass protests calling for the departure of Iraq’s ruling elite accused of driving the country into dysfunction and economic ruin.

The battle over government portfolios since Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in November last year prevented two previous nominees for prime minister from forming a cabinet and deepening the country’s political crisis.

To earn a vote of confidence in Parliament, al-Kadhimi had to appease the main political parties by letting them pick ministers in his cabinet – an informal yet deeply entrenched power-sharing system known as apportionment.

Protests now go beyond the appointment of a new prime minister. They demand a complete overhaul of the political system as the believe political parties that are responsible for the failures of the past government are still controlling Parliament.

In his speech, al-Kadhimi also promised that all pensions would be paid out in the coming days, rescinding a decision taken by the previous government just before it stepped down that blocked all state spending, including civil servants’ salaries and pension payments – relied on by one in five Iraqis.

To date, oil-rich Iraq has reported 2,679 confirmed coronavirus cases and 107 related deaths.

An implosion of oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic has raised concerns that Iraq will have little option but to impose austerity policies that could give rise to renewed demonstrations.