Thousands of protesters in and around Baghdad and south Iraq angrily railed against lawmakers’ lavish benefits on Saturday despite heavy security measures that kept many away, particularly in the capital.
Demonstrators criticised lawmakers’ retirement benefits, which amount to thousands of dollars a month each and stand in marked contrast to the daily struggle for many Iraqis who lack dependable electricity and sewerage services.
But heavy security measures in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah drew protesters’ ire as well.
Hundreds of demonstrators turned out in the capital, as well as several southern cities including Basra, Hilla, Najaf and Nasiriyah, as well as Kirkuk and Baquba, to the north of Baghdad, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki later throwing his weight behind the rallies.
Protesters carried Iraqi flags and held up placards with a variety of slogans criticising MPs, such as: “We elected you to serve us, not to steal from us,” and “The pensions of parliamentarians is a law written by thieves.”
“A huge amount of money goes to these people,” said Aamer Qasim, a pharmacist who attended a demonstration in the centre of Baghdad with several colleagues.
“The money should be spent on health, on education, on electricity, on infrastructure.”
Abbas Kadhim, a teacher protesting in Basra, said: “It is not reasonable for a person to work for four years, and then to take 80 percent of his salary. That does not happen anywhere in the world.”
“If it continues this way, after another three terms, there will be no budget left for the country.”
Iraqi lawmakers have faced consistent criticism for their lavish pay and benefits, which are several times that of the average citizen, as well as a failure to pass any significant legislation in years.
But anger has grown in recent weeks in particular over the pensions awarded to them after they leave parliament.
MPs are allotted a base salary of around $10,000 per month, and a monthly budget of more than $20,000 for security, rent and stationary. They retain around 80 percent of their full salary as a pension after serving one term in parliament, along with allotments for security, and also get to keep diplomatic passports.
The prime minister later issued a statement saying he supported the calls to cut lawmakers’ benefits, and that he would push for the moves in government and through his political bloc in parliament.
Despite Maliki’s comments, however, demonstrations were officially barred in the capital on security grounds, and protesters were surrounded by a heavy security presence where they were allowed to gather, at several squares in central Baghdad.
In Nasiriyah, meanwhile, security forces fired live rounds into the air to disperse protests and also used a water cannon.
At one rally in Baghdad, security forces detained an AFP photographer and briefly confiscated his camera.
“I feel depressed because of the behaviour of the government and security forces,” said Qasim, the Baghdad pharmacist. “They surround us, and do not let us move, and prevent the media from coming to see us.”
“It is like a dictatorship.”
The interior ministry’s decision to ban the protests in Baghdad was met with criticism from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“The authorities can ban demonstrations if they believe they will be violent, but here the concern seems that protests will be politically embarrassing or inconvenient,” Joe Stork, HRW’s Middle East director, said in a statement.