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Protests in Iraq bring fast promises, but little change

Prime minister vows cleanup amid pessimism

BAGHDAD — Surrounded by the clamor of protest — a sea of Iraqi flags, vendors selling coffee and melon drinks, protesters singing the national anthem and railing against politicians — two friends paused and described their dreams.

“I want to find a job opportunity,” said one of them, Yasir Abdulrahman, 21, who recently earned an engineering degree but remains unemployed. “I want to build a country.”

His friend Hussein Ali, 22, quit university to support his family and now works as a taxi driver. He said that even the specter of bombings — any public space in this city is fraught with danger — would not keep him away from the square.

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“We are only thinking of reforms,” he said. “If you want to change, you have to sacrifice yourself.”

For five Fridays now, thousands of mostly, but not entirely, youthful and secular Iraqis have gathered in central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand change. At first, the demands were small, such as improving electricity amid a summer heat wave. But the list has grown longer and more complex: fix the judiciary, hold corrupt officials accountable, get religion out of politics.

The protests have come to overshadow the fight against the Islamic State, Iraq’s main preoccupation over the past year. Change — on paper — came quickly. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a set of sweeping measures to placate the protesters. He called for the elimination of several senior government positions, including the three vice presidencies; the end of sectarian quotas in politics; and a new drive to eliminate corruption.

Several weeks later, few of the measures, aside from the firing of three deputy prime ministers and a few ministers, have been carried out, and many protesters now say they are pessimistic about real change.

“We haven’t noticed anything yet,” said Ali Farras, 25, who joined the protests Friday. “It is just ink on paper.”

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Away from the agitation of the streets are the political intrigues of the Green Zone, the cloistered and fortified enclave here for politicians and ambassadors. There, officials say, the entrenched sectarianism and corruption in the political system may make it impossible for Abadi to keep his promises.

“He can make all the directives on Earth, but who will implement them?” said one Iraqi lawmaker close to Abadi who spoke anonymously to avoid angering the prime minister. Yet if Abadi succeeds in eliminating sectarian and party quotas from Iraqi politics, the lawmaker said, he will become “a national hero.”

The protests — and the support for them from members of the Shi’ite religious establishment in the holy city of Najaf — have provided an opportunity, as well as political cover, for Abadi to tackle some of the country’s most vexing problems.

Since the protests began, Iraqis have noticed a modest improvement in electricity, but not much else.

“He has to meet people’s demands, but he can’t go too fast and upset the political elite,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst based in London and Baghdad who sometimes advises the government.

Still, for the first time in a long time Iraqis have been given the space to voice grievances. As in Beirut, where piles of trash on city streets incited popular demonstrations, the protests here have evolved into a broader rebuke of the political establishment. Under orders to treat the gatherings with kid gloves, the Iraqi security forces have protected the protesters rather than shoot them, as they did in 2011 when Iraqis, after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, sought to foment their own revolution.

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