TEHRAN(Basirat): The Iraqi government announced a series of reforms early Sunday after an "extraordinary" session overnight in response to sweeping unrest which many believe is directed from outside the country.
The governor of the Iraqi capital province of Baghdad, Fallah al-Jazairi, also stepped down and members of the provincial council accepted it.
The United Nations on Saturday urged an end to violence in Iraq, after five days of protests. The government says it recognizes the peaceful demands of the protesters, but believes they have been derailed by suspicious elements.
Confronted by its biggest challenge since coming to power just under a year ago, Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi's cabinet issued a decree including 17 planned reforms, such as land distributions and increased welfare stipends for needy families.
The decree ordered construction of 100,000 new housing units. In September, local authorities launched demolitions of houses in informal settlements, home to three million Iraqis across the country.
In response to staggering youth unemployment, which has reached around 25 percent according to the World Bank, the government said it would create large market complexes and boost benefits for those without work.
The public sector remains the largest employer in Iraq, a country of 40 million people, but it has struggled to absorb new university graduates in recent years.
In the southern city of Kut last month, a young Iraqi man died after he set himself alight in despair after authorities seized his mobile kiosk.
The government has officially designated those killed as "martyrs," granting their families a special set of benefits.
The Iraqi Human Rights Commission said Saturday that 99 people have died and nearly 4,000 have been wounded since protests kicked off.
The majority of protesters killed were struck by bullets, according to medical sources, who said on Friday that six police officers have also been killed.
The authorities have accused "saboteurs" and unidentified snipers of targeting protesters.
On Sunday morning, the situation was calm in Baghdad, though with lighter traffic than usual. The capital's iconic Tahrir Square remained blocked off by security forces.
Parliament speaker Muhammad al-Halbusi pledged a range of reforms in a meeting with lawmakers on Saturday, but did not hold his planned legislative session as the body failed to reach quorum.
Born of calls on social media, the protest movement denounced corruption, unemployment and the decay of public services in a country chronically short of electricity and drinking water.
Iraq is the 12th most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International, reaching the rank since the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country since in 2003.
The protests follow Iraq's declaration of victory over the Daesh terrorist group at the end of 2017 -- after nearly four decades of conflict.
Starting Tuesday, protesters gathered in Baghdad and spread to the country's south, defying an internet blackout, tear gas and even live rounds.
Authorities have asked protesters to give them time to implement reform. Prime Minister Abdel-Mahdi has said certain elements have been able to derail the protests from their peaceful path.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shia cleric of Iraq, on Friday urged security forces and protesters to avoid violence.
"It is sorrowful there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction” from clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in recent days, Ayatollah Sistani said in a letter.
The unrest comes as millions of pilgrims are preparing to travel to the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to attend Arba'een marking the fortieth day after the martyrdom of their third Imam, Hussein ibn Ali (AS).
A number of politicians and religious personalities have said the United States and the occupying regime of Israel are stoking the unrest to disrupt the Arba'een procession.
Arab media outlets and observes have published reports revealing that the U.S. seeks to create chaos in order to install a pro-American regime in Iraq.
"Despite the legitimate demands of the Iraqi people in fighting corruption", recent developments in Iraq have been a "manifestation of an American plot to abuse such grievances," the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Akhbar wrote on Saturday.
The paper Iraqi security officials have uncovered a plot that seeks to provoke major clashes between Iraqi protesters and security forces. The Iraqi government, however, was aware of the plan and had adopted necessary measures to counter it, the paper added.
The unrest came shortly after Iraq reopened its Al-Qa'im crossing with Syria and accused the occupying regime of Israel of orchestrating a string of recent drone strikes on Iraqi popular mobilization forces.
Tehran-based political analyst Hussein Sheikholeslam said the unrest is a product of U.S. efforts to weaken "the resistance axis", which is the key pillar of rising popular opposition to U.S. and Israeli plans in the Middle East.
According to Ali Matar, an analyst in Arab political affairs, the U.S. seeks to stoke insecurity in Iraq in order to continue exploiting its resources.
The analyst said the unrest was curious, coming in the wake of Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s talks with China and Russia to possibly buy air defenses.