Death toll rises as Iraqis rage against government in renewed protests

At least 49 killed in last two days, including several hit by gas canisters; powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr joins protests, upping pressure on Baghdad

Anti-government protesters remove barriers on a bridge leading to the Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, October 26, 2019. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Anti-government protesters remove barriers on a bridge leading to the Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, October 26, 2019. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — At least seven more Iraqi protesters were killed Saturday in clashes with security forces in Baghdad and the southern town of Nasiriyah, as thousands took part in nationwide anti-government protests, officials said.

The new violence brought the number of demonstrators killed to 49 in two days of protesting, according to an Associated Press tally. The semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights, which accounts for violence in additional cities in southern Iraq, put the death toll at 63.

Thousands of protesters tried to reach Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to embassies and government offices.

Security forces fired tear gas as protesters tried to remove blast walls from a main bridge leading to the government district.

Security forces fire tear gas and close the bridge leading to the Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

By nightfall, the security forces had chased the protesters back to Tahrir Square, a central roundabout.

“I want change. I want to remove those corrupt people who sleep in the Green Zone and who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at us,” said protester Fares Mukhaled, 19, who sat barefoot on the ground at the square, where some had erected tents.

Four people were killed when they were struck by tear gas canisters in Baghdad, security and medical officials said.

A second medical official said three protesters were shot dead by security guards when they attacked the office of a provincial official in the southern town of Nasiriyah. The town in the mainly Shiite south has seen especially violent protests in recent weeks and was placed under a 24-hour curfew on Friday along with the southern city of Basra.

At least 149 were killed in a wave of demonstrations earlier this month. The spontaneous, leaderless protests are directed at the political establishment that came to power after the 2003 US-led invasion, which many blame for spiraling corruption and poor public services.

An Iraqi protester waves a national flag as he stands atop a burnt-down police vehicle during an anti-government demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on October 25, 2019. (AFP)

The protests against the Shiite-dominated government have been largely concentrated in Shiite areas. Some have also criticized Iran’s influence over the country. “Iraq is free. Iran out, out!” some protesters chanted in Tahrir Square.

Late Saturday, street lights were turned off around the square, plunging protesters clinging onto their positions there into darkness.

Witnesses said security forces were unleashing volleys of tear gas to clear the crowds, each canister lighting up the smoke-filled square with flashes of light.

Iraqi security forces fire tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters during a demonstration in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

Explosions could be heard from the square well past midnight.

In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a security official said demonstrators in a rally that took place outside the Iranian consulate also chanted for Iran to get out.

The Interior Ministry and the military issued statements Saturday saying some protesters have exploited the rallies to attack government buildings and political party offices.

The ministry said some of its members were killed as police battled violent protesters but did not give a number. The military warned that it would take necessary and legal measures to deal with those it called saboteurs.

PMF offices torched

Iraqi officials said 12 of those killed Friday died in a fire they had set when they stormed the office of the government-backed Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force. in the southern town of Diwaniyah. A security official said protesters torched the offices of at least three militias in southern Maysan province.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Top Hashed commanders have threatened revenge after their offices were attacked, and denounced those they said aimed at sowing “discord and chaos” in the country, including the US and Israel.

The Iran-backed Hashed, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was founded in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group but its factions have since been ordered to incorporate into the state security services.

“Public anger is directed at them in addition to governorate councils, for they were the obvious face of ‘the regime’,” wrote Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Iran emerged as a major power broker in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and has close ties to many of its political parties, as well as the Hashed.

Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), paramilitaries walk in a funerary procession next to a vehicle carrying the body of Wissam Alyawi, a leading commander of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq faction that is part of the PMF, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on October 26, 2019. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

The United Nations said it was “tragic” to see renewed violence but also warned against “armed spoilers.”

“Armed entities sabotaging the peaceful demonstrations, eroding the government’s credibility and ability to act, cannot be tolerated,” said the UN top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

In Baghdad, Iraqi police had fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live shots on Friday to break up protesters who gathered in the central Tahrir Square and later tried to cross the bridge leading to the Green Zone. The protesters returned in Saturday, clashing with security forces throughout the day.

Anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir square during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

The rallies have mainly been by young, unemployed men who are demanding jobs and better services. Young women appeared among the crowd in Baghdad for the first time Saturday, some handing out water to the protesters.

A widow who identified herself as Um Layth, or the mother of Layth, said she had asked her son and daughter to stay home because she feared for their safety.

But the 60-year-old from outside of Baghdad said she came to protest, wanting a better future for her children.

“I am not afraid if I die, but I want a better future for my children,” she said. “If these parties and this government stay, they will have no future.”

Sadr sit-in

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist whose supporters have the largest number of seats in parliament, has endorsed the protests and called on the government to resign. He has also suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

In a statement Saturday he called on political leaders to “keep their hands off (the people),” saying there had been enough “repression, injustice and divisions.” He warned them to change course so the country does not “slide into the fires of sedition and civil war.

“Resign before you’re forced to resign,” he said.

After his speech, hundreds of his supporters marched toward Tahrir Square. “We are carrying our own shrouds,” said Hussein Abdul-Khaleq, a 30-year old al-Sadr supporter, indicating he is not afraid to die.

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seen in the poster, at a sit-in in Basra, Iraq, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Saturday night, members of his Saeroon bloc — parliament’s largest with 54 MPs — escalated the situation.

MP Badr al-Zayadi said they had begun an open-ended “sit-in, until the enactment of all reforms the Iraqi people are demanding.”

Zayadi told AFP the bloc had sent an “official request” to Iraq’s president, who according to the constitution can ask parliament to withdraw confidence from the premier.

The move has put Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi under more pressure than ever as Saeroon was one of the two main sponsors of his government.

Unimpressed by promises

Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC’s second biggest producer but one in five people live below the poverty line and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, according to the World Bank.

About 60 percent of Iraq’s 40-million-strong population is under the age of 25.

The staggering rates of joblessness and graft allegations have been at the root of protesters’ anger, which the government has struggled to quell.

Abdel Mahdi has proposed a laundry list of reforms, including hiring drives, increased pensions and a cabinet reshuffle.

An Iraqi protestor waves his national flag during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad on October 25, 2019. (AFP)

New education and health ministers were approved by parliament earlier this month, the only time it was able to meet since protests began.

But a scheduled meeting of parliament on Saturday to discuss the latest protests failed to take place due to a lack of a quorum.

Protesters so far have seemed unimpressed by the government’s efforts.

Iraqi protesters walk through a flooded street in front of a mosque dedicated to the late Iraqi Shiite Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, during an anti-government demonstration in the central holy shrine city of Najaf, on October 25, 2019. (AFP)

“They told people: ‘Go home, we’ll give you pensions and come up with a solution’. They tricked us,” said one of the rare woman protesters on Saturday, her young son at her side.

Some protesters have directed some of their anger at Sadr and the country’s top Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is deeply revered among most Iraqis.

“Sadr, Sistani — this is a shame,” a protester in Tahrir said on Saturday.

“We were hit! It’s enough,” he said, waving a tear gas canister fired earlier by security forces.

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