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Iraq parties, allies debate new premier as violence hits capital, shrine cities

Iraq parties, allies debate 
new premier as violence 
hits capital, shrine cities

Iraqi politicians and their regional allies gathered in Baghdad on Tuesday to discuss a way out of two months of protests that brought down the government, as violence hit southern cities.
Demonstrators demanding root-and-branch reform have flooded the capital and the Shiite-majority south since October in the largest grassroots movement the country has witnessed in years.
Seen as a threat to the ruling elite, the rallies were met with a heavy-handed response from security forces and armed groups that has left more than 420 people dead and nearly 20,000 wounded -- the vast majority demonstrators.
After a fresh uptick of violence last week, prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi formally resigned and talks to find a replacement have intensified this week in Baghdad.
Among those attending the negotiations are two key allies of Iraq’s main Shiite parties: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Qasem Soleimani and Lebanese power-broker Mohammad Kawtharany, a high-ranking political source told AFP.
“Soleimani is in Baghdad to push for a particular candidate to succeed Abdel Mahdi,” the source said, without providing details.
Kawtharany, who is Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s pointman on Iraq, “is also playing a large role in persuading Shiite and Sunni political forces on this”, the source added.
Political powers in Shiite-majority Iraq have long had close ties with counterparts in Iran and Lebanon further west, both of which have also been rocked by protests in recent weeks.
The United States said Soleimani’s presence showed that its arch-foe Iran was again “interfering” in Iraq.
Meanwhile, protests have continued in the streets of Baghdad and across the south.
In the shrine city of Najaf, 35 protesters were wounded when armed guards in civilian clothes fired shotguns and tear gas on crowds near the tomb of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a cleric who founded a major Shiite political party, medics said.
Najaf has been rocked by violence since protesters torched the Iranian consulate there last Wednesday, accusing Tehran of propping up the government.
Tribal dignitaries have tried to mediate, calling on populist cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades) to intervene, Sadr’s office said. He has yet to respond.
In Karbala, riot police fired live rounds and tear gas at protesters late into Monday night, an AFP correspondent reported.
Federal police have dispatched reinforcements to the flashpoint city of Nasiriyah, where the most deaths have been in recent days, and to the port city of Basra.
Some 500 officers arrived in Nasiriyah and another 150 to Basra for added security at prisons holding accused jihadists, fearing a breakout amid the chaos.
In Baghdad, authorities announced on Tuesday they were releasing 16 people detained at protests. The step came a day after Human Rights Watch accused the government of not doing enough to protect activists against harassment.