Iraqi prime minister moves to ease access to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone

Haider al-Abadi issues order to security forces in an apparent bid to improve daily life for ordinary Iraqis as the country braces for fresh protests

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meets with his military commanders at an Iraqi Army base near the oil refinery town of Beiji north of Baghdad, Iraq.  Photograph:  AP Photo

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meets with his military commanders at an Iraqi Army base near the oil refinery town of Beiji north of Baghdad, Iraq. Photograph: AP Photo

 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Friday ordered security forces to ease access to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and main streets, in an apparent bid to improve daily life for ordinary Iraqis as the country braces for fresh protests.

The capital and many southern cities have witnessed demonstrations in recent weeks calling for provision of basic services, the trial of corrupt politicians, and the shakeup of a system riddled with graft and incompetence.

Thousands of people were heading to join Friday’s protests following a call from powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Security forces deployed in force to prevent violence, which has been limited in past weeks.

Partly in response to the protests, Abadi is pushing reforms to a system he says has deprived Iraqis of basic services and undermined the fight against Islamic State militants.

He has announced several measures this month to combat corruption and mismanagement including scrapping layers of senior government posts, cutting security details and other perks for officials, and encouraging corruption investigations.

On Friday, he directed military commanders to ease civilian access to the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district home to many government buildings and several Western embassies.

The 10-square-kilometre area on the bank of the Tigris River once housed the headquarters of the U.S. occupation and before that one of Saddam Hussein’s republican palaces.

Checkpoints and concrete barriers have blocked bridges and highways leading to the neighbourhood for years, symbolising the disconnect between Iraq’s leadership and its people and wreaking havoc on traffic in the city of 7 million people.

Abadi also ordered the elimination of no-go zones set up by militias and political parties in Baghdad and other cities in response to more than a decade of car bombings.

But Friday’s edicts showed that security remained a high priority. Abadi called for a plan “to protect civilians ... from being targeted by terrorism”, according to online statements, but did not identify specific measures or a timeline.

Bomb attacks, many of them claimed by Islamic State, continue to strike the Iraqi capital. At least six people were killed on Friday morning in a car bomb attack in the southern district of Zafaraniyah, police and medical sources said.

Abadi pledged in November to remove concrete barriers from the capital, but movement in many areas remains constrained by the blast walls. He has managed to reduce the army’s security role in the city and lifted a nighttime curfew.

“PREVIOUS PROMISES”

Abadi also ordered on Friday the formation of a legal committee to review the ownership of state properties and return illegally gained assets to the state. Critics say some officials have abused their authority to appropriate state-owned properties for personal use.

Top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields authority few Iraqi politicians would openly challenge, has called on Abadi to “strike with an iron fist” against corruption.

On Friday, he cautioned protesters against letting personal goals distract from their demands while urging politicians to provide tangible results of reform measures.

“The citizens have tried previous promises and found nothing in reality that would solve the problems they have suffered from for so long. They saw that these promises were only aimed at temporarily relieving their suffering,” Sistani said in a sermon delivered by a spokesman.

The provincial governors of Muthanna and Qadisiya, in Iraq’s oil-producing south, offered to resign on Friday, local officials said, following allegations of administrative and financial wrongdoing. It was not immediately clear when they would leave their posts.

(Additional reporting by Reuters TV in Baghdad and Aref Mohammed in Basra; editing by Dominic Evans)