SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - A protester tried to set himself on fire in Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish zone on Friday, where demonstrators have camped out on a square to call for the ouster of the powerful regional administration.
Protests were also held in several other Iraqi cities, although numbers were smaller than in previous weeks and there was no major violence.
Nasik Qadir, spokeswoman for protesters in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, said one demonstrator had doused himself in kerosene and tried to set himself ablaze. He was rescued by other demonstrators and suffered no major injuries.
Such acts have taken on grave symbolism in North Africa and the Middle East since a Tunisian vegetable seller set himself on fire in December, triggering the uprising in that country which has spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other countries.
Several thousand people gathered in Sulaimaniya chanting for the ouster of regional President Masoud Barzani and carrying pictures of protesters killed in recent weeks.
“There has been no response from the government. We are here to change the despotic system, end the corruption in Kurdistan,” said Qadir. “People feel the corruption and want jobs, justice and services.”
Popular anger in the Kurdish region has been directed at a regional government which enjoys near-total autonomy, dominated for decades by two political parties whose former rebel guerrilla armies have been converted into security forces.
In the regional capital Arbil, supporters of Barzani drove through the capital honking horns and waving flags. Addressing a rally of the two ruling parties, Barzani said: “You cannot bring about change illegally... The opposition represents the minority and we as the authorities represent the majority of the people.”
Iraqis have joined in protests sweeping across the Arab world, expressing anger at government corruption and the failure of authorities to restore public services. Many demonstrations have taken place on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.
Protests were particularly violent two weeks ago when at least 10 people were killed, and last week when police used water cannon to disperse crowds. This week was quieter.
Several hundred demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir square on Friday, and similar-sized rallies were held in the western towns of Falluja and Ramadi. Protesters in Baghdad were watched over by riot police, but there was no ban on vehicles as in previous weeks.
“Yes, our numbers have decreased, but nevertheless we must continue. This voice should remain in place until we get a response,” said Naeem al-Alawi, 45, a government employee.
In Falluja, about 500 protesters chanted: “Oil is not the people’s property, it is the property of thieves!”
Unlike other Arab countries where the public has risen up against long-serving autocrats, Iraq saw its own dictator Saddam Hussein toppled in a 2003 U.S. invasion that led to years of insurgency and sectarian war.
Violence has dropped sharply in recent years and state coffers are swelling with rising oil revenues. Yet the government has so far failed to restore many basic services. Baghdad’s electricity works for only a few hours a day.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, heading a fractious coalition government cobbled together in December nine months after an inconclusive election, has given his cabinet 100 days to meet protesters’ demands for reforms and better services.
Baghdad political analyst Wathiq al-Hashemi said many Iraqis appear willing to show patience, at least for the short term, now that Maliki has acknowledged their anger.
“I believe most of the people realized that their voices have reached the government,” he said. “The government asked for 100 days ... They are waiting to see how serious the government is in responding to their demands in these 100 days.”
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Khalid al-Ansary and Rania El Gamal in Baghdad, Namo Abdulla in Arbil and Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja; Writing by Peter Graff