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Iraqi PM defends performance in face of protests

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By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:34 AM

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's prime minister Thursday defended his government's performance in the face of protesters demanding more jobs, better services and less corruption - charging that lawmakers were just as much to blame for the crisis.

Like other countries in the Middle East, Iraq has been buffeted by protests in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike elsewhere, demonstrators are not aiming to replace the regime. Instead, they focus on improving government services like electricity supply.

Even so, the protests have shaken Iraqi leaders, who worry the outcry will only worsen as Iraq's scorching hot summer approaches, with sporadic electricity supplies underlining the government's inability to ensure basic services for its people.

In a rare appearance before parliament, a defensive-sounding Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed lawmakers for failing to pass badly needed laws that would encourage development and economic growth.

"The current situation is not the responsibility of one group, rather it is a joint responsibility," al-Maliki told them. "The executive and legislative authorities share responsibility in both successes and setbacks."

Al-Maliki singled out important legislation like an oil law needed to streamline investment in the energy sector, a retirement law which he said would encourage older employees to retire and let young people find employment and social insurance legislation that would help poor and elderly Iraqis.

"There are big and important ministries working without laws, or their old laws have not been revised," al-Maliki said.

Small-scale protests have taken place almost daily around the country by people demanding better services, government workers pushing for more pay and widows and orphans asking for government stipends.

On Thursday employees at the electricity ministry rallied for better working conditions and salaries, and on Wednesday, Iraqi workers demonstrated in central Baghdad for more pay.

Most of the protests have been peaceful, but demonstrators and security forces have clashed on many occasions. At least 14 people were killed in Feb. 25 demos billed as the "Day of Rage."

Unlike most countries in the Arab world, Iraq has a democratically elected government, but that has not made it immune to protests. Iraqis suffer nearly 30 percent unemployment, rampant government corruption and often get only a few hours of electricity a day.

Al-Maliki has vowed to give his new government, only cobbled together in December after months of political negotiations, 100 days to improve the situation, or the ministers could lose their posts.

In a bid to differentiate himself from the authoritarian rulers in the region, he's promised to only serve two terms. His government also canceled the purchase of 18 jet fighters from the U.S. and said it would spend the money on food instead.

Lawmakers criticized his performance Thursday in the parliament, saying they were unfairly blamed for the country's ills.

"He tried to throw the ball into the parliament's court for the failures that took place in the country," said Maha al-Douri, a lawmaker affiliated with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during a news conference after the session. "What we need is immediate solutions for the problems, not long speeches."

Al-Sadr and his bloc are allied with al-Maliki, but recently the Shiite cleric has voiced reservations with the way al-Maliki has addressed the country's problems.

--

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.


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