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 party 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.
Kurds seek to keep 'gains'
Protests in Iraq erupted two months ago over rampant corruption, lack of jobs and poor public services.
Despite the oil wealth of OPEC's second-biggest producer, one in five Iraqis lives in poverty and youth unemployment stands at one quarter, the World Bank says.
Demonstrators say such problems require more deep-rooted solutions than the resignation of Abdel Mahdi, the first premier to step down since Iraq installed a parliamentary system after Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003.
The 77-year-old said it would be a "waste of time" to keep a caretaker cabinet in place, in a hint that a political deal to name a new premier was in the offing.
But any successor would need the approval of divided Shiite factions, Kurdish authorities in the north and Iraq's key allies, the US and Iran.
The Kurdish regional government (KRG) was a main backer of Abdel Mahdi and is likely worried by his resignation.
The KRG is prioritizing keeping a sizeable share of federal government posts and making sure constitutional amendments do not threaten its recent "gains", said analyst Adel Bakawan.
The Kurdish administration said Tuesday it "hoped for the implementation" of a deal agreed in principle just days before the premier's resignation, granting it a share of the 2020 federal budget in exchange for exporting its crude oil through the national seller.
Other parties were also seeking guarantees as part of the talks, a government source told AFP.
"Political blocs want to maintain their positions," the source said, describing discussions as "very difficult".
Tensions grip shrine cities
Parties are considering a six-month "transitional" cabinet to oversee electoral reform before an early parliamentary vote, government and political sources told AFP.
A new electoral law has been a key demand of protesters and is now a centerpiece of the government's reforms, with key parliamentary blocs expected to discuss it on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, protests have continued in the streets of Baghdad and across the south.
In the 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 extremists, fearing a breakout amid the chaos.
In Baghdad, authorities announced 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 or abduction.
A UN envoy warned Tuesday that the continued use of violence against civilians in Iraq is "intolerable" and called on Iraqi leaders to respond with urgency to the Iraqi people's aspirations for change.
"Political leaders do not have the luxury of time and must rise to the moment," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN envoy to Iraq, said in a video presentation to the UN Security Council.
Hennis-Plasschaert warned that attempts to buy time with "band-aid solutions and coercive measures ... will only further fuel public anger and distrust."
"The vast majority of protesters are evidently peaceful," Hennis-Plasschaert said. "Any and all forms of violence are intolerable, and must not distract from the rightful demands for reform."
However, she said that despite a review of the rules of engagement to minimize the use of lethal force, "the harsh reality is that the use of live fire has not been abandoned."
"Non lethal devices -- such as tear gas canisters -- continue to be used improperly causing horrific injuries or death, ... unlawful arrests and detentions continue to take place -- as do abductions, threats and intimidation," she said.