Protesters renew Iraq demonstrations in defiance of deadly crackdown
Anti-government rallies swelled in Iraq's capital and south on Wednesday as Baghdad faced new pressure from both the street and the United Nations to respond seriously to weeks of demonstrations.
Protests demanding a new leadership have rocked the capital and Shia-majority south for weeks, with crowds refusing to accept government pledges of reform and undeterred by the deaths of more than 300 people.
The protests died down for a few days following a deadly crackdown by security forces in Baghdad and major southern cities but broke out in force again on Wednesday with demonstrations by striking students and teachers.
"We're here to back the protesters and their legitimate demands, which include teachers' rights," said Aqeel Atshan, a professor on strike in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement.
In the southern city of Basra, around 800 students returned to camp outside the provincial government headquarters days after they had been pushed out by riot police.
Schools were also shut in the protest hotspots of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah.
Protesters have felt energized after the country's top Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said they "cannot go home without sufficient reforms".
"Students, boys and girls alike, are all here for a sit-in," another demonstrator in Tahrir told AFP.
"If Sistani gave the orders for mass civil disobedience, everything would close - the government, the oil companies, everything. That's how we'll have a solution."
Sadr changes tune after Iran visit
Iraq's parliament will meet on Wednesday afternoon to hear from the head of the United Nations' mission in Iraq (UNAMI), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
She will address the main political blocs and brief lawmakers on her meeting with Sistani, who in a significant move backed a UN roadmap out of the crisis.
Hennis-Plasschaert's proposal calls for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months.
The UN envoy was criticized last week by protesters for a tweet which appeared to show more concern for disruption to Iraq’s oil exports than for the repression of protesters
Oil-rich Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent and one-fifth of the population live in poverty while officials have siphoned off billions of dollars in public funds since the US invasion in 2003.
Demonstrations erupted on October 1 in fury over a lack of jobs and corruption, initially fracturing the ruling class.
Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr called on the government to resign and President Barham Saleh suggested early elections, while other factions stood by Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
But after a series of meetings led by Iran's influential Major General Qasem Soleimani, a consensus emerged at the weekend over the government remaining intact and both Saleh and Sadr appear to have changed their tunes.
Sadr, who is reported to be in Iran, took to Twitter on Wednesday to call on parliament to enact reforms and for "a general strike, even for one day," but did not demand the premier step down.
Saleh, too, appears to have dropped the idea of early elections.
US deplores death toll
The agreement brokered by Soleimani appeared to pave the way for a crackdown on demonstrations over the weekend that sent the death toll from protests to well over 300.
Iraq has faced growing criticism over its response to rallies, with human rights groups accusing authorities of shooting live rounds at protesters and curtailing freedom of expression with an internet blackout and mass arrests.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he spoke to Abdel Mahdi by phone late Tuesday and "deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq's crackdown and use of lethal force".
"I called on him to protect the protesters and to address their legitimate grievances," Pompeo said.
Also on Wednesday, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, was in Baghdad to meet with the premier, president and speaker of parliament.
Barzani and Abdel Mahdi are believed to have good personal ties, and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have backed the current government.