by Shalaan Ahmed, Jamal Hashim
BAGHDAD, Nov. 18 (Xinhua) -- The ongoing anti-government protests in Iraq have gained momentum by the support of the powerful Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, posing a serious challenge to the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The mass protests first erupted in early October, when thousands of angry young men took to the streets in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and nine provinces in central and southern Iraq over corruption, lack of jobs and public services.
Despite the high price of more than 320 deaths and over 15,000 wounded, the protests in Iraq continued and demands rose from improving living standards to reform the whole political process, through going to early elections in accordance with new electoral law and new electoral commission.
Late in October, the Iraqi President Barham Salih said the presidency office has approved early elections and later his office prepared a draft law for the elections and sent it to the government, which in turn combined it with its elections draft in order to send the final draft to the parliament for approval.
During the protests, the Iraqi government has responded to the protests by presenting several packages of reforms aimed at providing job opportunities, building housing complexes, paying stipends to the poor and scaling up the fight against corruption.
Moreover, the government referred some senior officials to courts over charges of corruption, and reduced the high salaries of top officials.
However, the government's measures have failed to ease the Iraqi street due to what seems to be loss of trust between the demonstrators and the government.
In an attempt to retain the trust between the two sides, the government announced that it was working to finalize the draft of the 2020 annual budget, in order to show that it has provided allocations for its promised reform packages.
Saad al-Hadithi, spokesperson of Abdul Mahdi's media office, told the official al-Sabah newspaper on Monday that the 2020 draft budget includes two important points; one is providing allocations needed for implementing the reform packages that government promised earlier, another is implementing the decision of reducing the high salaries of the top officials.
"Including these two points in the budget law sends an important message to peaceful demonstrators showing the government's seriousness to respond to legitimate demands such as job opportunities and improving services," al-Hadithi said.
The continuation of demonstrations prompted al-Sistani, who has popularity among most of Iraqi Shiites, to approve the legitimacy of the protests when he reiterated his support to the peaceful demonstrations and condemned the violence against both protesters and security members.
"If those in power think that they can evade conducting real reform by procrastination, they are delusional," Sistani said in his weekly Friday prayer, delivered by a representative in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
"What comes after these protests will not be the same as before, and they should be aware of that," al-Sistani warned.
An Iraqi political analyst, Nadhim al-Jubouri, believes that promises repeatedly made by the post-U.S. invasion governments to end corruption, curb unemployment rate and the absence of social justice have not been met.
The collapse of the Iraqi state after 2003, devastation by U.S.-led invasion, chaos and sectarian strife, have only yield a failed state as the decision-making process has been confiscated by powerful parties and their militias, according to al-Jubouri.
"The country's situation after 16 years of the invasion of Iraq has pushed the demonstrators to raise the roof of their demands from improving living standards to change the political parties and prosecute the corrupt people," al-Jubouri added.
He said that the latest protests are different from those in the previous years; because the protesters, this time, mainly came from the same community of the government and the leading parties i.e. the Shiite community.
The latest protests are also touching, for the first time, the Iranian influence in Iraq; as the Shiite protesters themselves are referring to the Iranian support to the leading Shiite parties and militias in Iraq as the main reason behind the deterioration in the country, according to al-Jubouri.
"The current demonstrations will not lead to a sectarian strife because the demonstrators are targeting politicians of all sects," al-Jubouri concluded.
Al-Jubouri believes that the protesters are betting on buying time by continuing their demonstrations in order to let the world hear their voice to increase pressure on the government, which they want it to resign and go into early elections to get rid of the corrupt people.
The demonstrators are also demanding an end to external interference in Iraq's affairs, as well as the elimination of the sectarian and ethnic quota system which the political process was built on since 2003.
For his part, the political analyst Hashim al-Shamaa, a member of the Iraqi Center for Political and Legal Development, told Xinhua that the accumulation of the mistakes of the political process over the past 16 years and the death toll of the current protests will give a push for the demonstrations to continue until tangible changes could be perceived in the political process.
"The demonstrations are not targeting the political process, but they focus on the structure of the regime and resignation of the government which failed to lead the country," al-Shamaa said.
The Shiite Marjiyah, or religious leadership, is dealing calmly and cautiously with the crisis of protests to avoid slipping into chaos and infighting like what happened in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
"The Marjiyah has worked tactically and stepped up its rhetoric gradually to give opportunity for the government and the political parties to response positively to the demonstrations demands," al-Shamaa concluded.