Iraq top cleric calls for forming new government ‘urgently’
LONDON – The top Shia cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for a government to be formed as soon as possible to tackle corruption and poor basic services.
In a Friday sermon delivered by a representative, Sistani also encouraged the incumbent government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to respond urgently to protesters’ demands seeking better basic services and jobs.
“The current government must work hard urgently to implement citizens’ demands to reduce their suffering and misery,” Sistani’s representative said in the Shia holy city of Kerbala.
Anger is mounting at a time when politicians are struggling to form a government after the May 12 election, which was marred by allegations of fraud that prompted a recount.
Sistani, a reclusive octogenarian, is revered by millions of Shia Muslims in Iraq and abroad.
Thousands have protested this month in cities in the long-neglected south, Iraq’s Shia heartland, against the lack of proper government services.
Demonstrations over the same issues have occurred in the past but the unrest this time is more widespread and is politically sensitive.
Abadi is seeking a second term after the parliamentary election which was tainted by allegations of corruption.
Sistani said the next prime minister in the new government had to be strong and courageous to fight corruption in government.
“He (the new prime minister) must launch a relentless war against the corrupted and those who protect them,” Sistani’s representative said.
In a report issued on Tuesday, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Iraqi government to investigate the excessive use of force against the protesters.
HRW also urged that members of the security forces responsible for using lethal force at the rallies be disciplined or prosecuted.
HRW’s Mideast chief Sarah Leah Whitson has warned that “as the government fails to address protester grievances, the danger of further bloody protests remains real.”
Mismanagement since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein has increased joblessness nationwide.
In more recent years, idle young men were lured into the ranks of militant extremists, and now unemployment is fueling violent protests in the capital of Baghdad and the Shia heartland in the south.
According to the World Bank, the overall unemployment rate in Iraq stands at 11.2 percent and is nearly twice that, 21.6 percent, in areas that once were under Islamic State control and endured heavy destruction from military operations that officially ended late last year.
As of 2014, the poverty rate increased from 19.8 percent in 2012 to an estimated 22.5 percent, it added.
To contain the unrest, the federal government promised an urgent allocation of 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars ($3 billion) for electricity and water projects, as well as 10,000 jobs.
But the requests for jobs exceed that number, with more than 85,000 people applying so far.
Unemployment has been one of the thorniest issues for the government, with 70 percent of Iraqis under age 40 looking for work.
(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)