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Anti-government rallies have renewed across Iraq, the second phase of protests that turned deadly earlier this month and which could balloon after the endorsement of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
They quieted after a crushing response by security forces and were set to resume Friday, which marks a year since embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi came to power.
But hundreds descended into the streets of the Iraqi capital earlier than anticipated.
They gathered in Baghdad's iconic Tahrir (Liberation) Square late Thursday, carrying Iraq's tricolour flag and calling for the country's entrenched political class to be "uprooted".
A few dozen headed towards the high-security Green Zone, which hosts government offices and foreign embassies, but were pushed back by security forces using water cannons.
Other rallies erupted in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah, where demonstrators said they would remain in the streets "until the regime falls".
Just after midnight, Abdel Mahdi made a scheduled televised appearance ahead of the larger protests expected the following day.
He defended his reform agenda including a cabinet reshuffle and told the protesters it was their "right" to demonstrate as long as they did not "disturb public life".
But in an unusually critical tone, the premier complained that previous governments had not faced the same kind of level of scrutiny and said political figures demanding "reform" had themselves failed to enact it.
Abdel Mahdi's comments appeared to be a reference to Sadr, the influential ex-militiaman who controls the largest parliamentary bloc, itself called the "Alliance towards Reform."
Many expect Sadr's supporters to hit the streets in large numbers on Friday afternoon, after the weekly sermon of Iraq's highest Shiite authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Sistani had set Friday as the deadline for Abdel Mahdi to enact reforms and his noon statement will be the first signal of how the rest of the highly-anticipated day could develop.
The mass rallies that erupted on October 1 were unprecedented in recent Iraqi history both because of their spontaneity and independence, and because of the brutal violence with which they were met.
At least 157 people were killed, according to a government probe published on Tuesday, which acknowledged that "excessive force" was used.
A vast majority of them were protesters in Baghdad, with 70 percent shot in the head or chest.
In response, Abdel Mahdi issued a laundry list of measures meant to ease public anger, including hiring drives and higher pensions for the families of protesters who died.
One in five people lives under the poverty line in Iraq and youth unemployment sits around 25 percent , according to the World Bank.
The rates are staggering for OPEC's second-biggest oil producer, which ranks the 12th most corrupt state in the world according to Transparency International.
The country has been ravaged by decades of conflict that finally calmed in 2017 with a declared victRead More – Source