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Stagnant politics, graft and slow recovery fuel new Iraqi unrest

Reuters logo Reuters 10/2/2019 By Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fed up of waiting for a peace dividend, Iraqis feel their country should be well on the road to recovery by now. War against Islamic State ended two years ago and the oil-rich country has seen an unprecedented level of security.

But corruption and economic mismanagement have worsened conditions even further for many, leading to a new round of unrest and anger at a government that has been in power almost a year.

Protesters took to the streets in their thousands on Tuesday chanting against graft and demanding jobs and services. Security forces opened fire. Two people died, and scores including police were injured. Protests re-ignited on Wednesday.

"The people want the fall of the regime" - a slogan often reserved for specific leaders in the Arab world - were in Iraq directed at an entire political class and system.

Demonstrators say the ruling establishment has fueled endemic corruption and kept millions of people living in poverty despite the OPEC member's vast oil wealth.

"Baghdad's renewed protests and the violent reaction by security forces is a sign that people are rejecting the political establishment for failing to improve lives despite a huge national budget," said economic lecturer Ahmed al-Mumin.

In Iraq's 2019 budget, nearly 19% of more than $106 billion is spent on security alone while the oil ministry gets 14%. The education, reconstruction and health sectors receive around 8% between them.

Most protesters were young men seeking jobs and services promised for years by successive governments, Mumin said.

Iraq still suffers from a chronic lack of job opportunities, power and water supply and other basic services two years after the war against the hairline Islamic State (IS) ended.

Iraqis hoped better security would offer the respite needed to fix infrastructure. Roads, hospitals, schools and much else were hurt by years of war and neglect, including U.N. sanctions, a U.S.-led invasion and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, civil war and most recently the fight against IS.

Instead, they say it is getting worse - mainly because of corruption.

"Jobs are available only to those with links to militias and powerful religious political parties," said Salam Jaafar, 30, a graduate from a technical institution and father of three.

Unemployment stood at 13% with youth unemployment at 25.6% in 2017, according to International Labour Organization data. A survey by the National Democratic Institute in July said a large majority of Iraqis see corruption as worsening in recent years.

POWERFUL PARTIES, WEAK GOVERNMENT

Many like Jaafar blame the parties that control Iraq's parliament and government, which include factions linked to powerful Iran-backed paramilitary groups.

Their image as heroes who had an important role in defeating IS has in some cases been sullied by accusations of sleaze and control of parts of the economy. The groups deny this.

The government has set aside 2% of the 2019 budget to pay its paramilitaries, which are now formally part of the state.

The most powerful armed groups on the ground are represented by a large group of lawmakers. A self-styled populist bloc led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also controls a large number of seats.

Iraq's political system divides up cabinet seats among the most powerful parties, who competed for months to form a government before picking the independent Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi last year.

Analysts say Abdul Mahdi is beholden to the often clashing interests of those parties and so unable to enact real reform.

"There's a failure of vision... the protests yesterday really just showed how lacking in ideas or any alternative vision or any political program all the political classes are," said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.

Many Iraqis despise politicians and governing institutions. Lawmakers spend large stretches of time abroad and are unavailable to constituents when parliament is not in session.

They accuse them of awarding jobs and contracts to their parties or kin and controlling ministries for their own gain.

Politicians say Iraq needs an extended period of stability and calm for reform to take root. They argue Iraq's internal security is held to ransom by bigger powers like the United States and Iran, which are engaged in a detribalizing regional showdown over sanctions and influence.

But many say that with Iraq's vast resources - it possesses the world's fourth-largest oil reserves according to the International Monetary Fund - its citizens should prosper.

The IMF in a recent report said the conflict with IS had caused some $46 billion of damage to infrastructure and property. But it added that "weak governance and corruption are widely acknowledged as parts of the problem."

REGIONAL INSTABILITY

Abdul Mahdi's government is also trying to avoid being bruised by the strains between the United States and Iran.

Iraq, which hosts both U.S. troops and Iran-backed paramilitary groups, often in close proximity, is desperate to avoid being stuck in the middle of a regional conflagration.

This summer rocket attacks which Washington blamed on Iran-backed groups hit near U.S. forces, and alleged Israeli air strikes hit Shi'ite Muslim militia groups.

"The Iran-U.S. crisis has pressured Abdul Mahdi's government and distracted his efforts to handle key issues such as fixing the war-hit economy," Baghdad-based analyst Ahmed Younis said.

"But worrying about keeping Iraq away from the regional conflict more than fixing a poor domestic economy is a fatal mistake that could have dire consequences. Mishandling protests could create a real crisis for him."

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by John Davison; Writing by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean)

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