BAGHDAD: Thousands of protesters massed Friday in cities and towns across Iraq after streaming in on foot in defiance of vehicle bans for rallies over corruption, unemployment and poor public services.
The demonstrations come after nationwide protests in more than a dozen cities a week ago, which spurred Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to give his cabinet 100 days to shape up or face the sack.
On Friday, a crowd of about 2,000 people had descended Baghdad’s Tahrir Square by early afternoon, another 1,000 gathered in the southern city of Nasiriyah and about 300 were in the central city of Hilla.
In the capital, the protesters had been outnumbered by security forces as they walked along a street lined by humvees, and were frisked three times before reaching the square.
They chanted "Liar, Liar, Nuri Al-Maliki" and "Oil for the people, not for the thieves," while carrying banners that read "Where has the people’s money gone?" and "Yes for democracy and the protection of freedom."
Riyadh Abdullah, a 39-year-old writer and activist, said he had walked for three hours to get to Tahrir Square from the city’s western neighborhood of Mansur.
"We are fighting for freedom and real democracy," he told AFP.
"Day by day, our freedoms are being infringed upon by religious parties; they are taking away the meaning of democracy.
"Corruption is also a major problem. We live in a rich oil country like Iraq but you cannot find electricity, you cannot find clean water, there is no infrastructure," said Abdullah.
"Where are the billions going?" he asked.
Another demonstrator, 26-year-old doctor Mohammed Khalil, voiced similar grievances.
"We are demonstrating because we love our country and we want it to be better. I need my voice to be heard," said Khalil.
"What’s wrong? Everything is wrong. Look at the roads, the services, everything is miserable."
Similar demonstrations, also with several hundred protesters, were taking place in the holy city of Najaf and the port of Basra.
Vehicle curbs have been applied to all of Baghdad, with the capital’s streets deserted but for a handful of cars attempting to evade checkpoints, and the centre of Basra.
Nasiriyah, in the south, barred anyone from entering.
Complete vehicle bans were also placed on every non-Kurdish province north of the capital, with protesters not even allowed near provincial governorate offices in the city of Mosul, after five demonstrators were killed and one building set ablaze in rallies there a week ago.
Friday’s rallies have been billed by some as a "Day of Regret", to mark one year since parliamentary elections.
It took politicians more than nine months to form a government after the poll on March 7, 2010, and even now, several key positions, such as the ministers of interior, defence and planning, remain unfilled.
"People will continue demonstrating until there is reform because the government has been built on a sectarian basis," said Faisal Hamid, a pensioner who walked to Tahrir Square from the nearby neighborhood of Karrada.
Demonstrations have been taking place in Iraq for the past month, with protesters decrying a lack of improvement in their daily lives, eight years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.
The biggest such rallies took place last Friday, when Iraqis took to the streets of at least 17 cities and towns. A total of 16 people were killed and more than 130 wounded as a result of clashes on the day.
The rallies have led to the resignations of four top officials — three southern provincial governors and Baghdad’s mayor.
In response, Maliki told ministers on Sunday they would be assessed on their performance in the coming 100 days, with "changes" being made based on whether or not they improved.
He has also pushed measures to combat graft, cut politicians’ pay and dedicate more money to providing food for the poor in a bid to head off the demonstrations.
Maliki and parliament speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi have also backed early provincial elections. The last such polls were conducted in January 2009.