Iraq tries to soothe anger as Mideast unrest grows

BAGHDAD Fri Feb 18, 2011 11:41am EST

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Unnerved by anti-government protests across the Middle East, Iraqi politicians are buying sugar, diverting money from fighter jets to food, doling out free power and cutting their pay to appease frustrated citizens.

The sudden moves by an elected government installed just two months ago seem designed to head off the kind of popular uprising that unseated long-time rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, although Iraq's nascent democracy is markedly different from entrenched autocracies in the Middle East, analysts said.

Iraqis have long protested against poor government services. But demonstrations against food, power and water shortages have mounted in recent weeks and some protesters are now voicing direct anger at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's new government.

"Certainly from the steps they (politicians) are taking it would seem that they are nervous," said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst with consultant IHS Global Insight.

"Iraq has experienced relatively big protests in the past related to the poor state of public services without taking such a big move as increasing electricity subsidies."

For the most part, Iraqis have not called for the federal government, formed after nine agonizing months of political wrangling between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni factions, to step down. Instead they demand the resignation of local officials, better food rations and more electricity.

Iraq's national grid supplies just a few hours of power a day and is a constant source of annoyance, especially in summer when temperatures rise above 50 degrees Celsius.

Last week the Electricity Ministry said Iraqis would receive their first 1,000 kilowatt-hours of power for free each month.

Dissatisfaction has been rising as progress remains slow eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

The national food program, which offers monthly rations of sugar, rice and other staples to millions, has come under fire due to shortages of some items.

The government has delayed the purchase of F-16 fighter jets to put $900 million of allocated funds into rations and bought 200,000 tonnes of white sugar this month to support the plan.

DIVERSE LEADERSHIP

"Maliki's almost panicked response to this new unrest demonstrates the extent to which he feels insecure: a man who is well aware that he obtained his second term as prime minister primarily through guile, stubbornness, and help from Tehran," said Wayne White, a scholar with the Middle East Institute.

Maliki, a Shi'ite, secured a second term as premier in December under a deal that gave shares in the government to minority Sunnis and Kurds.

While democratically elected leaders have pledged to reform Iraq, improvement has been slow. Jobs are scarce and battered infrastructure has hampered development and corruption is rife.

Protesters frequently cite rampant corruption as they call for local officials and provincial governors to step aside. Iraq is considered among the most corrupt countries in the world.

To placate frustrated Iraqis, Maliki said this month he would give up half of his $30,000 monthly salary and called for a two-term limit to be put on his office.

A bill to cut lawmakers and ministers' salaries -- and the pensions of former lawmakers and ministers -- by 50 percent has also been sent to cabinet for approval.

Iraq's protests have so far been scattered and analysts say it is unlikely that Iraqis will seek to change the government.

"The Tunisian/Egyptian uprisings revolved around a desire for regime change and free and fair elections," said Ranj Alaaldin, senior analyst at the Next Century Foundation.

"Iraq has a democratically elected coalition government that's representative of the Iraqi society, as opposed to having one ruling individual or family and ruling elite. It is very difficult to coordinate and execute an uprising against a government that is so diverse and heterogeneous."

(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Jim Loney and Samia Nakhoul)

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