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Clamor for change now reaches Iraq

Protests against poor government services break out in Baghdad and other cities. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki announces he'll cut his pay in half and later vows not to seek a third term.

February 06, 2011|By Salar Jaff and Raheem Salman | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad — Clamor for political change across the Arab world has reached Iraq, where protests against poor government services have broken out in the capital and other cities.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki vowed not to run for a third term, a day after he announced that he would cut his pay in half. Other officials agreed to decrease their salaries in a bid to stave off the kind of unrest erupting elsewhere in the region.

"We will also enact a law that guarantees equilibrium between the salaries of officials and ordinary Iraqis," said lawmaker Abbas Bayati. "The current circumstances are pushing us to decrease expenses and salaries, and spend them on the low income classes."

The popular uprising that overthrew of the government of Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine ben Ali helped spark the unrest that now threatens the rule of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. At a conference in Munich, Germany, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Saturday of a "perfect storm of powerful" economic and demographic trends that could envelop the Middle East.

But the popular demands for change have played out differently in various countries. In Jordan and Yemen, authorities appear to be making compromises to stave of social explosions. With protests planned for next Saturday, Algeria has vowed to end a years-long state of emergency that has restricted political liberties. Bahrain's state-run news agency said Friday that the government had increased food subsidies and vowed to widen social welfare programs. Protests there are scheduled for Feb. 14.

Some Iraqi officials earn tens of thousands of dollars a month and receive generous perks. One former official estimated that the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament earn between $500,000 and $700,000 a year. In comparison, President Obama's salary is $400,000.

On Friday, Maliki ordered the prime minister's salary to be decreased by 50% and the difference returned to the Iraqi state budget starting this month. A day later, he announced that he would not run for a third term even though he is not barred from doing so by law.

Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party also issued a statement in support of a peaceful transition of power in Egypt, which has traditionally had enormous political, cultural and educational influence in Iraq.

Salaries of elected officials eat up as much as 20% of the Iraqi budget's operational expenses. An official inside the Iraqi parliament, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said officials decided to slash their pay after protests in the capital and the provinces against poor services and corruption.

Iraqis have also launched a campaign on Facebook and Twitter calling for cutting salaries. Some said the moves so far were little more than a publicity stunt.

"The problem is not with their salaries," said Sabah Saadi, former chief of parliament's integrity commission. "The problem is with the social welfare and the additional allowances they are getting."

He said that salary reductions were a superficial attempt to placate Iraqis without addressing public concerns. "We saw the demonstrations in some cities in Iraq yesterday," he said. "Nobody mentioned the problem of salaries."

Iraqi officials and clerics have long urged the government to cut salaries and perks for elected officials. Parliament is finally beginning work after a months-long deadlock. Abdul-Mehdi Karbalai, a representative of the influential Shiite religious figure Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the city of Karbala, has been preaching for months about the issue.

"There is a big difference between the salaries of Iraqi officials and the ordinary people," he said in a Jan. 7 sermon. "This new government should review all of that and reduce the difference to create balance in society."

Jaff and Salman are Times staff writers in Baghdad. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.

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