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Iraqi protesters hold their ground a day after nomination of new PM

Protesters have rejected Mohammed Tawfik Allawi as prime minister, calling his appointment an Iran-backed decision
Protesters in Baghdad carry posters depicting the newly appointed prime minister that read 'Rejected by order of the people' and 'Does not match the specifications of the protest squares', 2 February (Reuters)
By Azhar Al-Rubaie in Baghdad

Iraqi protesters maintained their anti-government position by leading demonstrations across Iraq’s south on Sunday, a day after a new prime minister was appointed.

Former communications minister Mohammed Tawfik Allawi, a self-proclaimed independent, has been rejected by protesters as he does not meet their demand of a prime minister who had not previously served in government.

“By naming Allawi, the government violated people's demands, so we will keep protesting in rejection of his appointment until we choose the one we want, not what political parties want,” Mohammed Qasim, a 25-year-old protester, told Middle East Eye from Basra.

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Allawi’s nomination comes two months since outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned under the heavy pressure of anti-government protests, now in their fourth month, and the country’s Shia religious leadership.

President Barham Salih had given political blocks until Saturday to name Abdul Mahdi’s replacement. A last-minute consensus brought forth Allawi, but he was dismissed as having come from an Iran-backed agreement.

On Sunday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said Tehran welcomed Allawi’s appointment as prime minister, "in continuing support for the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity and strengthening the foundations of democracy in Iraq."

Protesters have widely rejected foreign interference, most notably Iran’s influence in Iraq.

“Barham betrayed us when he appointed the one that we rejected in protests squares,” Ali Munther, 33, said from Nasiriyah city, one of the major focal points of Iraq’s anti-government protest movement.

“Anyone who comes from Iran-backed militias will be rejected. Allawi is a copy of Adel Abdul Mahdi – they both came under Iran’s pressure and their proxies in the country.”

On Sunday, hundreds of Iraqis held protests in the capital Baghdad, Najaf, Kut, Diwaniyah and Hillah, chanting slogans rejecting Allawi.

In Hillah, protesters closed off all roads leading into the city, according to AFP, while in Diwaniyah, students started sit-ins at schools and universities.

Iraqi protests
An anti-government protester flashes the victory gesture by flaming tyres during a protest against Allawi in the central city of Najaf on 2 February (AFP)

On Saturday evening, Allawi announced his nomination in a video on Twitter, vowing to form a representative government, hold early parliamentary elections and ensure justice for protest-related violence - all key demands of demonstrators.

There was no formal announcement from Salih or other government bodies, however, a protest camp in Tahrir Square seemed divided on his nomination, with some Iraqis appearing to rally in support of him on Saturday.

Iraqi political analyst Ghanim al-Abed told MEE that as long as Iran keeps intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs, the situation in the streets will remain as it is.

Abed said the decision to appoint Allawi was an “unknown agreement” between Iran-backed politicians and that a number of political blocs had said in statements that they did not agree with his nomination.

“Iraq’s parliament did not give him the confidence yet. Allawi is a candidate of political parties, not the candidate of the people and the demonstrators, so what he said in his pre-recorded video was just to gain their (protesters) sympathy,” he said.

Sadr’s flipping positions

Hundreds of Iraqis, including students, took to the streets in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the main rallying point in the capital, carrying posters of Allawi’s photo with an “X” over his face.

“I’ve been protesting since 25 October against corrupted parties. I reject all candidates coming from them because they will also be corrupted,” Al-Qassem Ahmed, a protester in Baghdad, said, adding that Iraq needs a prime minister who is independent and loyal to Iraq.

“As protesters, we are not in a position to name a candidate, but we have said our conditions, and the president must find the right one,” Ahmed said.

He also said that he, like many others, believes that Allawi’s nomination was decided by Iran-backed parties including populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri, a Shia military leader and one of the most powerful figures in Iraq.

Sadr, one of the most influential political players in Iraq, has welcomed Allawi’s nomination, calling it a “good step”.

Sadr backed the protests in October, but he has flipped his position a few times over the past several days.

Last week he appeared to rethink his support for the protest movement and his backers dismantled their tents in protest camps across the country.  Hours later, riot police moved in to burn or tear down protest camps and around a dozen demonstrators were killed, medics and police said.

'Sadr used his supporters, the ‘blue hats’, to show his support for Allawi, a candidate rejected by protesters as he does not meet our conditions'
- Mohammed Qasim, protester

But on Friday he seemed to change positions again by calling for his backers "to renew the peaceful, reformist revolution".

On Sunday, however, he ordered his die-hard followers to coordinate with security forces to reopen roads and schools, and called for "day-to-day life" to resume.

"The revolution must go back to being restrained and peaceful," Sadr said in a statement published on Twitter.

"I advise the security forces to stop anyone from cutting off roads and the ministry of education should punish those who obstruct regular working hours, be they students, teachers or others.”

Some of Sadr’s followers have already participated in clearing out protest areas in Tahrir Square on Saturday night.

Hours before Allawi announced his nomination, Sadr’s supporters raided the Turkish restaurant, an iconic building occupied by protesters since October, and attacked demonstrators with sticks and batons after they rejected Allawi.

“Sadr used his supporters, the ‘blue hats’, to show his support for Allawi, a candidate rejected by protesters as he does not meet our conditions,” Qasim said.

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