Thousands of Iraqis rally across the country for government reforms, stamping out corruption

Thousands of people demonstrated in cities across Iraq on Friday to show support for a reform plan put forth by the prime minister this week while still demanding that greater measures be taken to target corruption and restore basic services. 

People sang, chanted and played music at the demonstrations, the largest of which were in the cities of Baghdad, Babel, Basra and al-Kut. Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, spokesman for Iraq's interior ministry, estimated some 14,000 people were protesting in Baghdad alone. 

The crowds waved Iraqi flags and banners showing their support for the first of several reform measures from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. "With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for you, oh Iraq!" they chanted. 

On Sunday, al-Abadi responded to the demands of protesters and a call by the country's most revered Shiite cleric to target corruption and curb reckless government spending. His plan, unanimously approved by parliament Tuesday, eliminates the three vice presidencies and the three deputy prime minister posts. 

The reforms also expand the powers of the prime minister, allowing him to sack provincial governors and the heads of provincial and local councils. Al-Abadi also vowed Wednesday to hold a referendum to make changes to the constitution, saying he wants to correct "mistakes." He has not elaborated on what changes he wants to make. 

Still, most of those gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country said Iraq's problems are far from resolved. The demonstrators continued to call on the government to improve basic services, particularly the electricity grid. 

Chronic power outages amid searing summer heat spurred the latest round of protests two weeks ago — a shortfall that actually dates back to 2003 shortly after the U.S.-led invasion. They also demanded that the government take a tough stance on the corrupt judiciary. "No services, no electricity, no water, unemployment, Iraq is finished," said Oday Jassim, 25, in Baghdad. 

"There are no schools, no education, no healthcare — we're destroyed!" Calls to dissolve the parliament and stop judicial corruption were among the demands of the day, with protesters chanting "Medhat Mahmoud: Illegitimate!" referring to the head of the country's supreme judicial council. 

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani once again dedicated much of his Friday sermon to addressing the country's domestic problems, saying repairing the judicial system was the most important step toward true reform. "It is an important milestone in the completion of the reform package and there is no real reform process without it," he said through spokesman Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie. 

In response, al-Abadi released a statement late Friday calling on the judiciary to carry out a series of "drastic measures" to "ensure the prestige of the judiciary, its independence and its ability to fight corruption." Unlike protests last week which received little coverage from state television, Friday's protests saw simultaneous, live coverage by Iraqiya television, with correspondents in Baghdad and most of the southern provinces speaking to protesters. 

Protesters say much of the country's domestic problems have been sidelined as a result of the war with the Islamic State group, and that senior government officials are turning a blind eye to problems that have plagued Iraq for decades. 

Many of the country's political factions turned against al-Abadi's predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, largely because they saw him as a domineering leader who monopolized power and allowed widespread corruption. Critics say al-Maliki staffed the military's officer corps with incompetent loyalists, playing a major role in the army's collapse in the face of the IS advance. 

In response, the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, which mixed pre-established Shiite militias with new volunteer fighters, was hastily established to reinforce the military in the face of the crisis. "With the boots of the Hashd, we'll stomp out the thieves," the protesters chanted. 

The Islamic State group currently holds territory in about a third of Iraq and Syria and has established a self-described "caliphate." Meanwhile, local authorities in Iraq's western Anbar province said government airstrikes destroyed a women and children's hospital in Islamic State-held territory near the city of Fallujah. 

The Anbar provincial council said Iraqi warplanes were targeting IS militants in the village of Nassaf, 2 kilometers (a mile) south of Fallujah, when the hospital there was hit on Thursday. It called on the Iraqi defense ministry to accept responsibility for the attack and to exert caution when targeting areas with high civilian populations. 

A senior official overseeing operations at several Fallujah-area hospitals said at least 22 women and children were killed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. A spokesman for the Iraqi defense ministry, Yahya Rasool, on Friday rejected claims of the airstrike. 

He said Iraqi troops do not target hospitals, schools or other civilian facilities, even if they are occupied by militants. Aamaq, an ISIS-affiliated news agency, posted an online video late Thursday purportedly showing the aftermath of the attack on the hospital, with men, women and children covered in blood, bandages and scars. 

The Associated Press could not independently verify the video.  

By VIVIAN SALAMA

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