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Iraq protests revive amid anger at slow pace of reform

Demonstrators demand early elections based on reformed voting law, new prime minister and that corrupt officials be held to account
Iraqi anti-government protesters block bridge with debris and burning tyres in southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Sunday (AFP)

Protests escalated across Iraq's south and its capital Baghdad on Sunday as demonstrators sealed off streets with burning tyres in outrage at the government's slow pace of reform.

Protesters are demanding early elections based on a reformed voting law, a new prime minister to replace current caretaker premier Adel Abdul Mahdi and that officials deemed corrupt be held to account.

The youth-dominated rallies have rocked Shia-majority parts of Iraq since October but had thinned out in recent weeks amid the geopolitical storm of Iran-US tensions since top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US strike in Baghdad on 3 January.

On Sunday, the anti-government protest movement was re-ignited with hundreds of angry young people descending on the main protest camp in Baghdad's Tahrir Square as well as the nearby Tayaran Square.

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Others burned tyres to block highways and bridges, turning back cars and leading to traffic jams across the city.

Reporting from Babylon, Al Jazeera's Imran Khan said the protesters were preparing to cripple Iraq's roads. "The protesters say they will cut off the south of Iraq from the rest of the country by blocking all the main roads," he said.

Protester Jassim Abbas told Al Jazeera they want "rapid elections and an independent candidate who doesn't belong to the old parties".

"This is only the first escalation," one protester in Baghdad with a scarf wrapped around his face told AFP as smoke from the tyres turned the sky behind him a charcoal grey.

"We want to send a message to the government: Stop procrastinating. The people know what you're doing," he said.

Security forces used tear gas to try to clear out the protesters, who responded by throwing rocks. 

At least 10 people including police officers were injured in the resulting skirmishes, a medical source told AFP. 

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In the holy city of Najaf, youth wrapped in checkered black-and-white scarves and carrying Iraqi flags lit tyres and began a sit-in on a main road leading to the capital.

Rallies swelled in the cities of Diwaniyah, Kut, Amara and Nasiriyah, where most government offices, schools and universities have been shuttered for months.

Premier Abdul Mahdi resigned almost two months ago, but political parties have thus far failed to agree on a successor and he has continued to run the government as a caretaker.

Demonstrators have publicly rejected the names circulating as possible replacements and are furious that other sweeping reform measures have not been implemented.

"We began to escalate today because the government did not respond to our demands, notably forming an independent government that could save Iraq," said Haydar Kadhim, a demonstrator from Nasiriyah. 

"Last Monday, we gave them a deadline of seven days. That deadline ends tonight," Kadhim told AFP.

The rallies are the largest and bloodiest grassroots movement in Iraq in decades, with almost 460 people dead and more than 25,000 wounded since they erupted on 1 October. 

While the violence at the protests themselves has dropped slightly, activists say they face an escalating campaign of intimidation, kidnapping and assassination attempts.