Iraq on knife edge as protesters reject 'pro-Iran' al-Suhail

Thousands poured into the streets of Baghdad and Iraq’s southern provinces yesterday to protest against a potential prime minister accused of being too close to Iran.

The protesters closed roads in several southern provinces, including oil-rich Basra, saying they will not accept the nomination of the outgoing higher education minister, Qusay al-Suhail.

The demonstrations came as a Sunday midnight deadline for naming an interim prime minister loomed, with no apparent solution in sight.

Iraq’s leaderless uprising has roiled the country since October 1, with at least 400 people killed in outbreaks of violence on the streets.

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Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia south to decry corruption, poor services and a lack of jobs, while also calling for an end to the political system imposed after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Pressure from the demonstrations led Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign as prime minister late last month, after Iraq’s most powerful religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, withdrew support for his government.

On Friday, Mr al-Sistani, in his weekly sermon delivered by a representative, called for political blocs to form the government quickly.

The Iran-born ayatollah also said that the new prime minister should be accepted by the public.

Iraq’s constitution requires that the parliament’s largest bloc name a candidate for the premiership within 15 days of accepting the prime minister’s resignation.

That deadline expired last Thursday, but was extended until midnight yesterday.

The political deadlock has been worsened by a dispute over which bloc is actually the largest in parliament.

The numbers have continued to change since last year’s elections, with an unknown number of lawmakers leaving some blocs and joining others.

The Federal Supreme Court provided guidance in a statement on Saturday, but stopped short of naming the largest bloc.

It said the decision should be based on parliament’s first session after taking office last year.

But the court also said it would accept it if two or more lists had merged to become the largest bloc in that session.

Two Iraqi officials said President Barham Saleh sent the court’s response to parliament, asking the legislature to say which is the largest bloc.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

There are currently two main blocs in Iraq’s parliament: Sairoon, led by populist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Units, headed by Hadi al-Amiri.

Mr al-Suhail was nominated for prime minister by Fatah and its allies.

Sairoon is insisting that the candidate be selected by the anti-government protesters on the street.

The protesters are calling for snap elections and a reformed electoral law that would give them greater say in how lawmakers are elected.

They consider the current draft being considered by parliament to be inadequate.

In the northern town of Beiji, members of the Isil group attacked police protecting an oil refinery on Saturday, killing four policemen, according to a military statement. It added that policemen killed one attacker who was wearing an explosive belt.

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