Jacques Clement, AFP
Last updated: 2 June, 2011

Iraq protest clouds loom

Iraq risks a return to massive street protests when a 100-day deadline for progress expires next week, experts say, with no core issues having been addressed and a summer heatwave coming.

Calls have already been issued for demonstrations after June 7, when the 100-day timeframe given by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to his cabinet concludes.

While visible projects have been started — fixing pothole-filled roads, upgrading a decrepit sewerage system, building houses and paying for generator fuel to power air conditioners — little long-term change has been effected.

“The move itself was a shrewd one by the government, it bought itself time to release the pressure on itself,” said analyst Ali al-Saffar, referring to February’s nationwide protests before Maliki issued the 100-day warning.

“But the timeframe set was likely much too short to achieve real, lasting, substantive results, and short-term populist measures were probably the best one could hope for,” Saffar of London’s Economist Intelligence Unit, added.

The February rallies were among the biggest since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets following uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia which toppled those countries’ rulers.

But while protesters across the Arab world were calling for regime change, Iraqis railed against poor basic services, rampant corruption and government ineptitude.

In response, the government re-routed $900 million originally earmarked for the purchase of F-16 fighter jets to food for the poor and started projects such as the roadworks and sewage repairs that showed visible change.

It also reserved $400 million to distribute generator fuel so Iraqis will be able to power air conditioners over the brutally hot summer.

They are hoping that will head off demonstrations such as those that erupted from June to August last year across south Iraq.

But key questions have not been addressed. These include the future status of either the 45,000 US forces in Iraq or the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk, as well as efforts to diversify Iraq’s economy away from crude oil, which accounts for two-thirds of the economy but just one percent of jobs.

“Maliki does not have many results to boast of in his first 100 days,” said Reidar Visser, a Norwegian Iraq analyst and editor of the www.historiae.org website.

“He has failed to make any progress on the key question of whether US forces should stay after 2011, and there are no signs that there will be any significant improvements in basic infrastructure such as electricity in the short term,” he said.

“Even the government line-up remains incomplete,” Visser added, referring to the fact that the ministers of interior, defence and national security had not yet been named, nearly 16 months after parliamentary elections.

At present, all three ministries are being headed by Maliki on an interim basis.

The US military contingent in Iraq is, meanwhile, required to pull out by the end of this year, but US officials have pressed their Iraqi counterparts to decide soon if they want the presence extended.

They still have concerns over Iraq’s ability to defend its borders and airspace.

Maliki spent most of his 100 days “focusing on politics rather than policy”, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“He has sparred with (parliament speaker Osama) al-Nujaifi concerning whose responsibility it is to judge the performance of the ministers (and) he has sparred with governors and provincial councils, trying to shift the blame on them,” she said.

For Ottaway, the main question was whether Maliki would “take advantage of the end of the 100-day period to fire some ministers.”

No explicit targets were set when he made the declaration on February 27.

A review of cabinet performance was pledged, but analyst Saffar said it would be “difficult to measure the results because they (the targets) were so fluid and abstract to start off.”

It took more than nine months just to form a government in the first place following March 2010 elections, with Maliki eventually heading up a delicate national unity coalition — and that makes any sacking anyone a major issue.

“If he starts firing ministers he will undermine even further the already fragile … agreement,” Ottaway said.

“No matter how incompetent a minister being fired may be, it will be interpreted as a political move by the party to whom the fired minister belongs.”

She added: “I would not be surprised if Iraq entered into a period of political instability.”