Hundreds of students have marched in cities across Iraq to denounce the nomination of Mohammed Allawi as the country’s next prime minister despite calls from influential Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, for his supporters to clear roads and resume “day-to-day life”.
Anti-government protesters in Baghdad, Najaf and Nasiriya rejected the choice of Allawi, who they accuse of belonging to the same political establishment that has failed them.
“For sure he is rejected,” a student protester in the capital, Baghdad, told Al Jazeera on Sunday. “For 16 years we haven’t seen anything from them, just destruction.”
Mass anti-government protests erupted in Iraq on October 1, when thousands of people took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominately Shia-dominated provinces in southern Iraq to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and a lack of employment opportunities.
The protesters demanded the removal of the political elite and a complete overhaul of the country’s political system introduced after the US invasion of 2003.
At least 500 people have been killed amid a crackdown on demonstrations, with rights groups condemning security forces’ use of live fire.
The 65-year-old prime minister-designate is no stranger to Iraqi politics. A cousin of former vice president and prime minister, Iyad Allawi, he previously served as a member of parliament and communications minister under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Allawi resigned in 2012, accusing al-Maliki of political interference in his ministry and the government of turning a blind eye to corruption.
After two months of political deadlock following the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Allawi was nominated as the new prime minister on Saturday, with the task of running the country until an early election is held, for which there is no date set.
The selection of Allawi followed an ultimatum by Iraq President Barham Salih, who had said he would pick a new prime minister himself if parties did not agree on a candidate.
Iran‘s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Tehran offered its full support for the new prime minister.
“Iran is willing to give any assistance necessary to help Iraq overcome problems and to pass through a sensitive time,” Mousavi said, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Tensions on streets
Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said “large numbers” of students had taken to the streets at a critical time before midterm exams.
“What is noteworthy today is that they turned out in the streets despite mounting political opposition to the protest coming from Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr,” she said.
Earlier on Sunday, al-Sadr urged his followers camped out in Tahrir Square to resume “day-to-day life” by opening blocked roads and ensuring schools and government offices remained open in a statement posted on Twitter.
Al-Sadr’s followers had returned to demonstration camps on Friday after he reversed an earlier decision to withhold support from the anti-government protest movement.
Upon returning, al-Sadr’s followers consolidated control of strategic areas in Tahrir Square, including key bridges leading to the fortified Green Zone, the seat of government. Significantly, they also moved into a high-rise building nicknamed the “Turkish Restaurant”, which offers a strategic lookout over the protests and had been occupied by anti-government protesters.
“They attacked us by surprise and forced us out of the building shouting that we didn’t do any good to the country except ruining its economy,” said Rassoul, 20, a protester who had been camping at the Turkish Restaurant since October.
Al-Sadr, who also leads one of the biggest blocs in parliament, has thrown his weight behind Allawi.
Al-Sadr’s followers, known for donning blue caps on the street, were seen on Sunday cooperating with security forces and clearing blocked roads, Foltyn.
Many protesters said al-Sadr’s followers had threatened them to toe his line or leave the square. “They will never mix with us,” said Mariam Nael, 18, a protester.
“We are here for our homeland, they are blindly following the tweet of one cleric,” she told the The Associated Press news agency.