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Iraq protests flare again after Pompeo 'deplores death toll'

Rallies swell in Baghdad and the south as US secretary of state calls on prime minister to address protesters' grievances
Demonstrators run away from tear gas thrown by security forces during protests in Baghdad on Wednesday (Reuters)

Anti-government rallies swelled in Iraq's capital and in the south of the country 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 country for weeks, with crowds unconvinced and undeterred by government pledges of reform and the deaths of more than 300 people.

Demonstrations had dimmed for a few days following a deadly crackdown by security forces in Baghdad and major southern cities, but flared again on Wednesday with demonstrations by striking students and teachers.

The protests came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had spoken to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi by phone late on 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. 

'Legitimate demands'

"We're here to back the protesters and their legitimate demands, which include teachers' rights," Aqeel Atshan, a professor on strike, said on Wednesday as he protested in Baghdad's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicentre of the protest movement.

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In the southern port 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 revived 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 the AFP news agency.

"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?

Iraq's parliament will meet on Wednesday afternoon to hear from  Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the head of the United Nations' mission in Iraq.

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.

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Hennis-Plasschaert's proposal calls for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-corruption measures within two weeks, followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months.

Oil-rich Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent.

Demonstrations erupted on 1 October in fury over a lack of jobs and corruption, initially fracturing the ruling class.

Populist religious authority Moqtada Sadr called on the government to resign and President Barham Saleh suggested early elections, while other factions stood by Prime Minister 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. 

Barzani visit

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 rights defenders accusing authorities of shooting live rounds at protesters and curtailing freedom of expression with an internet blackout and mass arrests.

Also on Wednesday, Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq , 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. 

But they are worried that any amendments to Iraq's 2005 constitution as part of a reform process would infringe on Kurdish rights.