Analysis: Iraq's Maliki wields protests to consolidate power

BAGHDAD Tue Mar 15, 2011 7:52am EDT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will not solve Iraq's problems in three months, but by imposing a 100-day deadline on his cabinet to respond to violent protests he has bought time to consolidate his power.

Joining a wave of protests across the Arab world, thousands of Iraqis have taken to the street to decry power shortages, lack of jobs, poor basic services and corruption. At least 10 people were killed on the most violent day two weeks ago.

Maliki responded by cutting his own pay, reducing electricity bills, buying more sugar for the national food ration programme and diverting money from fighter jets to public food handouts. As rallies increased, Maliki gave his newly seated cabinet a 100-day ultimatum to shape up or face the sack.

The moves appear to have eased some of the pressure from the street. Protests have diminished in size in the past two weeks, with only a few hundred turning out to a demonstration on Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Friday.

No one believes 100 days is enough time to fix a country wrecked by decades of war, economic sanctions and political paralysis. But the deadline serves notice on former foes that Maliki reluctantly brought into his cabinet after an inconclusive election last year.

"These demands need years to be met, not 100 days," Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie said.

"But it is obvious that he is trying to absorb the anger of demonstrators and then direct this anger against the inefficient ministers...those who were imposed on him."

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Maliki formed his government for a second term in late December, bringing Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions into a coalition after nine months of wrangling following the election.

From the outset, he said he was not satisfied with the cabinet, complaining he was forced to accept some ministers to win the blessing of parliament.

The protests effectively give him an opportunity to revisit the coalition agreement, blame ministers for Iraq's woes, and replace them.

"With this cabinet, Maliki does not have real control over his ministers because it is a national partnership government," said lawmaker Walid al-Hilli, a member of Maliki's Dawa Party.

"Maliki is not responsible: it is the cabinet. But Maliki is not ready to continue with a government that is unable to meet people's demands. Eventually Maliki may go to the parliament to sack them," he added.

In a sign of the divisions that remain within the coalition cabinet, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq said last week that Maliki himself should step down if the government fails to meet the 100-day target to improve.

Despite growing oil income, Iraq is still struggling to rebuild its battered economy and crumbling infrastructure.

Iraqis are frustrated by the slow progress in the eight years since a U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. There is little clean running water, no proper sewage system and the national grid supplies only a few hours of power per day.

Iraq has grand plans to boost power generation. It needs to spend $77 billion to improve the power sector by 2030, but lacks sufficient funds to meet such an ambitious goal and still faces a deficit projected at $13.4 billion in the 2011 budget.

Many of the protests have taken place outside the capital, in provinces where demonstrators are seeking to remove powerful regional bosses seen as corrupt. Maliki could strengthen his position by removing provincial officials.

Meanwhile, he is announcing measures to soften public anger.

He has asked his cabinet to allocate around 280,000 new job vacancies among the country's 18 provinces and said provincial governments might be able to buy and distribute food rations directly rather than through the central government.

He already asked three governors to step down and has suggested he may announce early provincial elections.

"Maliki can't find solutions to all these problems in 100 days. But he can give the impression that he is positively responding to these demands. This may ease the people," said Safia al-Souhail, a lawmaker.

"He has to show how serious he is in dealing with implementing radical reforms, fighting corruption and putting forward a plan."

(Editing by Rania El Gamal, Peter Graff and Jon Boyle)