BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister said Friday he'll return half of his annual salary to the government's treasury, in a symbolic effort to narrow the gaps between the nation's rich and poor.
It was a stunning statement for Nouri al-Maliki, who has resisted disclosing his pay in the five years he has led Iraq. Coming in the wake of popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, al-Maliki's gesture appeared to be an effort to insulate himself from public bitterness over Iraq's sagging economy and electricity shortages.
Al-Maliki narrowly secured a second term in office after months of political negotiations last year. He is believed to earn at least $360,000 annually.
"Fifty percent of my monthly salary will be reduced, starting from the current month, as a contribution from me to reduce the difference in the salaries of the state officials," al-Maliki said in a statement Friday. "That will help limit the differences in the social living standards for different classes of the society."
Al-Maliki also noted that his paycut comes as Iraq's parliament considers an $86 billion spending plan for this year.
Hours earlier, Sunni and Shiite clerics used Friday sermons to warn government leaders against letting poverty, oppression and corruption become the norm -- or face the consequences of the unrest that has gripped parts of the Arab world in recent weeks.
"All governments -- even those which embraced democracy -- have to study the essential reasons that have lead to this overwhelming popular anger against the political regimes in those countries," said Shiite Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a top representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
"They have to learn the lessons from what is happening," al-Karbalaie said.
Emboldened Iraqis staged several small protests over what they called corruption in the government's security forces, rampant unemployment and scant electricity and water in homes.
U.S. government estimates indicate that as many as 30 percent of Iraqis are unemployed, and households nationwide have as little as three hours of electricity or running water daily because of the country's antiquated and overloaded power grid.
Wisam Sabir, a 45-year-old activist for the al-Noor government watchdog group, said Iraq's problems are far worse than those of some of its Arab neighbors.
"We watched the uprising in Tunisia, but the services there are better than here," she said at a small demonstration outside the a coffee shop in central Baghdad's Mutanabi book market.
"Where is the democracy and freedom they promised us?" she said. "This is another dictatorship."