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Defying Legal Threats & Parents, Students Flood Iraq Streets in Anti-Govt Protest

More than 200 people have been killed and 8,000 wounded, the majority protestors, since the movement erupted on October 1.

AFP

Updated:October 28, 2019, 7:06 PM IST
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Defying Legal Threats & Parents, Students Flood Iraq Streets in Anti-Govt Protest
School students chant slogans as they take part in a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Najaf, Iraq. (Reuters)

Baghdad: Students and schoolchildren hit the streets of Baghdad and southern Iraq on Monday to join escalating calls for the government to quit, defying the education minister, legal threats and even their parents.

Swathes of the country have been engulfed by protests this month, with anger over unemployment and accusations of graft evolving into demands for a total political overhaul.

More than 200 people have been killed and 8,000 wounded, the majority protestors, since the movement erupted on October 1. This week, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi found himself under pressure from a new source: Iraqi students.

"No school, no classes, until the regime collapses!" boycotting students shouted on Monday in Diwaniyah, 180 kilometres (120 miles) south of the capital.

Diwaniyah's union of universities and schools announced a ten-day strike on Monday "until the regime falls", with thousands of uniformed pupils and even professors flooding the streets.

They came out despite Higher Education Minister Qusay al-Suhail's warning on Sunday that academic life should "stay away" from protests, after around a dozen schools and universities in Baghdad had joined sweeping rallies.

A spokesman for Abdel Mahdi even threatened that any further disruption to schools would be met with "severe punishment". But young protesters still gathered on Monday morning in the southern cities of Nasiriyah, Hillah and Basra.

In Kut, most government offices were shut for lack of staff. In Baghdad, demonstrators gathered on campuses and in Tahrir Square.

"Qusay al-Suhail said not to come down into the streets. But we say: no nation, no class!" one student protester said.

"All we want is for the government to immediately submit its resignation. Either it resigns, or it gets ousted." About 60 percent of Iraq's 40-million-strong population is under the age of 25.

But youth unemployment stands at 25 percent and one in five people live below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.

Anger at inequality and accusations that government corruption was fuelling it sparked protests in Baghdad on October 1 that have since attracted growing numbers of young people.

On Monday, a group of three students drove up close to Tahrir Square, unloading kits and cans of Pepsi to help treat those affected by tear gas.

"It's my first day at the protests. I told my mom I'm going to class, but I came here instead!" a girl with curly hair told AFP.

In the province of Diyala, which had so far been calm, two members of the provincial council resigned in solidarity with the rallies. Even in the holy city of Najaf, dozens of young clerics-to-be took to the streets.

The protests are unprecedented in recent Iraqi history for their ire at the entire political class, with some even criticising traditionally revered religious leaders.

"We want the parliament to be dissolved, a temporary government, an amended constitution and early elections under United Nations supervision," a demonstrator in Baghdad told AFP on Monday.

"That's what the people want. We don't want another solution."

Abdel Mahdi has proposed a laundry list of reforms, including hiring drives, increased pensions and promises to root out corruption. Iraqi President Barham Saleh has also held discussions with the UN on electoral reform and amendments to the 2005 constitution.

Parliament has tried to meet to discuss the protests but failed several times to reach a quorum. Lawmakers were set to meet on Monday, but the sitting had not begun at the scheduled time of 1:00 pm.

Four lawmakers resigned late on Sunday in solidarity with demonstrators, and the largest bloc has been holding an open-ended sit-in since Saturday night. Saeroon, the bloc tied to firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, said it was dropping its support for Abdel Mahdi.

The move has left the premier more squeezed than ever, as Saeroon was one of the two main sponsors of his government.

The other was Fatah, the political arm of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which has said it would continue to back the central government.

Several Hashed offices have been torched in recent days in southern Iraq, prompting vows of "revenge" from its leaders. Sadr responded Sunday, warning them: "Do not champion the corrupt. Do not repress the people."

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