Iraq PM-designate meets anti-govt protesters

Allawi pledges to release Iraqis detained for demonstrating, compensate families of those killed in protest-related violence, work with UN to implement protesters' demands.

Allawi served as communications minister twice since 2003

Rooting out graft in Iraq has been key demand of protesters

Protesters could have a say in up to five ministerial nominations

BAGHDAD - Iraq's premier-designate Mohammad Allawi has met with dozens of representatives of the protest movement rocking the capital and Shiite-majority south since October, a participant in the meetings said Wednesday.

The protesters have been demanding an overhaul of the ruling elite and have rejected Allawi as a product of the political class they have been protesting against for months.

When he announced his designation on February 1, Allawi extended a hand to the protesters and urged them to keep up their demonstrations.

"Since the beginning of the week, Mohammad Allawi has held a string of meetings with several dozen representatives of protesters from the eight provinces taking part in the uprising," said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi security expert present at the meetings.

According to Hashemi, Allawi pledged to release Iraqis detained for demonstrating, compensate the families of those killed in protest-related violence and work with the United Nations to implement the demonstrators' demands.

Allawi, 65, served as communications minister twice since the US-led invasion of 2003 but stepped down both times, citing corruption in the government.

Rooting out graft in Iraq - the 16th most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International - has been a key demand of protesters.

Hashemi said Allawi promised the demonstrator delegations that he would take on embezzlement and the bloated public sector by changing up to 170 "acting" government officials and 450 directors-general in the ministries.

The PM-designate also said up to two ministers in his cabinet, which he has until March 2 to form, would be activists themselves and that demonstrators could have a say in up to five ministerial nominations.

It will be subject to a vote of confidence by parliament and if it passes, Allawi will formally take up his role as prime minister.

Until then, he is not able to implement executive decisions, including many of the reforms he is pledging.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani piled on the pressure on Friday, saying Iraq must "accelerate the formation of a new government".

"It is imperative to speed up holding early elections so that the people will have their say, especially regarding the preservation of its sovereignty and the independence of its political decisions," he said.

Sistani condemned on January 10 mutual US and Iranian attacks on Iraqi territory and warned of deteriorating security in the country and the wider Middle East as a result of Washington's confrontation with Tehran.

Among protesters’ demands is Iran’s non-interference in Iraq’s sovereignty.

The US killed Iran's top military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, in an air strike next to Baghdad airport on January 3.

Iran responded on January 8 by firing missiles at US-led forces in Iraq. In the aftermath, both sides backed down from intensifying the conflict, the latest stage of a protracted shadow war between the two foes.

Neighbouring Iraq is a frontline of the conflict, caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also Baghdad's main allies and vie for influence there.