Iraq's embattled PM bows out as protesters mourn dead

PM Adel Abdel Mahdi, will however stay on in a caretaker capacity until a replacement has been named

Photo: AFP Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi

The government of Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi ended Sunday after two months of violent unrest that has left more than 420 people dead and thousands mourning them in nationwide marches. As anti-government demonstrators across the strife-torn country massed to honour the fallen activists, parliament met to accept the resignation which the 77-year-old had offered two days before.

Abdel Mahdi had initially resisted protesters' calls for him to step down over the past two months. But a crackdown turned the tide last week when more than 20 people were killed in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, 40 in the hotspot of Nasiriyah and three in Baghdad. The bloodshed prompted Iraq's influential Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to call on parliament to drop its support for the premier.

Iraq's constitution has no provision for the resignation of a premier, and lawmaker Sarkawt Shamsaddin said Sunday that the body did not actually hold a vote.

"The speaker said that the Federal Court was consulted and the understanding is that (there is) no need to vote," he said.

The speaker had then asked if any lawmaker was against the resignation and "nobody objected".

And while Abdel Mahdi stays on initially to lead a caretaker government, President Barham Saleh will now be asked to name a successor to face the challenge of resolving the political chaos that has engulfed the nation.

The protest movement is Iraq's biggest since the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein and installed a democratic system in the oil-rich but poverty-plagued nation. Tens of thousands have vented their anger at a governing class they despise as inept, corrupt and beholden to foreign powers, especially neighbouring Iran, whose consulate in the city of Najaf was torched last Wednesday.

The rallies spread Sunday from the protest epicentre in Baghdad and the mostly Shiite south to the northern, majority-Sunni city of Mosul, where hundreds of students dressed in black organised a mourning march. Mourners marched for the first time in Salaheddin, a Sunni-majority province north of Baghdad, as well. Eight Shiite-majority provinces also announced a day of mourning during which government offices would remain shut.

 Observers said Iraq's fractured political scene will struggle to reach a consensus on a new premier. With the parliament's main Shiite blocs "fragmented, no 'largest faction exists," wrote Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, president of the Arbil-based Middle East Research Institute. Even if they agreed on a candidate, he or she would also need the backing of the emboldened street.

"Demonstrators are hard to please," said Ala'Aldeen. "The carnival goes on and, meanwhile, violence continues."

Just before the parliamentary session began, another protester was shot dead in the capital, medical sources said. But, in a victory for the movement, an Iraqi court sentenced a police officer to death after convicting him of killing demonstrators, the first such sentence in the two months of deadly civil unrest. The Kut criminal court sentenced the police major to be hanged and it jailed a police lieutenant colonel for seven years over the deaths of seven protesters in the southern city on November 2, judicial sources said.

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