Hundreds rally after Iraq deadline expires

Hundreds took to the streets of Iraqi cities on Friday, denouncing what they say was a lack of government progress after a 100-day deadline set by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expired.

About 400 protesters converged on Baghdad's main Tahrir Square, carrying banners and chanting slogans against Maliki's government and calling for better public services, notably electricity.

But the demonstration was overshadowed by a larger rally of some 3,000 people, also at Tahrir Square, calling for the execution of 25 accused insurgents, whom authorities allege took part in a 2006 massacre at a wedding party.

Security forces were out in large numbers at the square, which was closed to cars. The thoroughfare is located in the heart of Baghdad, the traditional site for weekly demonstrations.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters also gathered in the cities of Hilla, Basra and Nasiriyah, to the south of Baghdad, while authorities likewise banned vehicle traffic in Tikrit city and Diyala province, north of the capital.

"Our hearts are stronger than your government," was the message on a banner carried by anti-government demonstrators at Tahrir Square.

"We want the government to improve basic services," read another banner, carried by a trio of women wearing red, white and black scarves, representing the colours of the Iraqi flag.

"I am protesting against everything because everything is wrong," said Mohammed Jassim, a 28-year-old jobless protester.

The anti-government protests dispersed after about a dozen rival demonstrators rushed into the crowd and assaulted several people before running away.

"The 100-day period was a lie," said Ahmad al-Saadi, a 30-year-old tradesman, charging that Maliki's government had organised the rival protest by paying supporters to attend.

In Karbala, official sources said the province had bused hundreds to Baghdad for the protest against the perpetrators of the Shiite-Sunni wedding massacre. Twenty-five accused insurgents are in prison for the killing of 70 people.

But Mohammed Hussein Ali, wearing the long tribal robe common in the south, insisted he and fellow demonstrators had travelled to Baghdad from Wasit province in the south of their own accord.

"We came by ourselves, no one asked us to come," said Ali, 45. "We demand the execution of the criminals who committed the wedding crime."

Anti-government activists had called for protests in the capital and other parts of the nation on Friday, the first Muslim weekend since Maliki's deadline expired on Tuesday.

The "Great Iraqi Revolution," a group set up on social networking website Facebook, drew more than 36,000 members and urged supporters to take to the streets.

While signs of progress are visible, from road-building projects to sewerage upgrades, little in the way of landmark legislation has been passed, and key issues remain unresolved.

Maliki had set the timetable on February 27, vowing that reviews would be carried out based on ministerial performance over the ensuing 100 days and warning that "changes will be made" based on those assessments.

But the day before the deadline was set to expire, he indicated no top politicians would be dismissed for poor performance, insisting his remarks had been misunderstood.

In response to the February rallies, Iraq re-allocated $900 million (623 million euros) originally earmarked to purchase fighter planes to buying food for the poor.

It also reserved $400 million for generator fuel to power air conditioners over the boiling hot summer and launched high-profile projects such as the roadworks and sewerage repairs.

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