BAGHDAD (Reuters) –
Iraq’s most powerful politicians appeared to withhold support for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Wednesday, as anti-government protests swelled into the biggest mass demonstrations the country has seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Protesters from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides thronged the centre of the capital Baghdad in a show of fury at the political class. While Abdul Mahdi’s fate was not yet clear, demonstrators said removing him would not be enough.
After four weeks of protests in which more than 250 people have been killed, the past 24 hours saw the demonstrations swell to a previously unseen scale in the capital.
Middle class families with small children joined self-proclaimed “revolutionary” youths from poor neighbourhoods to brave tear gas and barricades in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
“No Moqtada, no Hadi,” protesters chanted, denouncing what they saw as an effort by the leaders of parliament’s two largest blocs — populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and militia leader Hadi al-Amiri — to cling to power behind the scenes with or without the prime minister they installed a year ago.
Sadr has demanded Abdul Mahdi call an early election. When the premier refused, Sadr called on Amiri, his main political rival, to help oust him.
Amiri issued a statement overnight that was initially seen as accepting Sadr’s call to ditch Abdul Mahdi. But a day of silence followed, leaving the prime minister’s fate in limbo.
“We will work together to secure the interests of the Iraqi people and save the nation in accordance with the public good,” Amiri had said in the overnight statement.
Many young women and older people joined the protests as they gained momentum and appeared safer. The mood was jubilant yet defiant, with many singing and dancing and a group of young men even playing dominos, in contrast with the tense situation earlier this week when scores were killed nationwide.
One wheelchair-bound man said he came with his two young granddaughters to support the protesters.