Iraq pro­test­ers, lead­ers dig in for third week

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

BAGH­DAD: Anti-gov­ern­ment protests in Iraq en­tered their third week with fresh blood­shed Fri­day, as lead­ers ap­peared to have closed rank around the em­bat­tled premier.

More than a dozen demon­stra­tors died in Bagh­dad and the south­ern port city of Basra within 24 hours, med­i­cal sources told AFP.

That pushed the death toll since the first protests erupted on Oct. 1 closer to 300, ac­cord­ing to a tally com­piled by AFP as of­fi­cials have stopped pro­vid­ing up­dated fig­ures.

In Basra, seven pro­test­ers were killed in con­fronta­tions Thurs­day and early Fri­day, with se­cu­rity forces try­ing to re­open roads blocked by sit-ins, med­i­cal sources said.

For a week, pro­test­ers have cut ac­cess to Basra’s Umm Qasr port, which brings in most of Iraq’s food and med­i­cal im­ports.

In Bagh­dad, six peo­ple died fac­ing off against se­cu­rity forces Thurs­day, a med­i­cal source told AFP.

De­spite the vi­o­lence, thou­sands flocked to the cap­i­tal’s main protest camp in Tahrir Square, with num­bers swelling into Fri­day evening. Among them were tribal mem­bers from the south as well as peo­ple from across the river in western Bagh­dad who had to cir­cum­vent road clo­sures to reach Tahrir. “Even if the bridges and most of the roads are closed, peo­ple are driv­ing all the way around from far-away ar­eas to reach Tahrir,” one pro­tester said proudly.

Se­cu­rity forces have sealed off four bridges to keep pro­test­ers in Tahrir from cross­ing the Ti­gris into the Green Zone, which houses Par­lia­ment, the Cabi­net, for­eign em­bassies and other key build­ings.

“Even if it comes down to the last man, we have to enter the Green

Zone and bring it down,” another pro­tester shouted.

“We’ll an­nounce our peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion from there against ev­ery­one who stole from us – Prime Minister Adel Ab­del-Mahdi, Qais al-Khaz­a­ali, Hadi al-Ameri!” he said.

Khaz­a­ali and Ameri are lead­ing com­man­ders in the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which has pub­licly backed the gov­ern­ment af­ter protests erupted.

It was founded in 2014 to fight Daesh (ISIS), draw­ing from a host of Shi­ite armed fac­tions, many of which have close ties to Iran.

Fri­day, a Hashd source told AFP that the net­work had brought in hun­dreds of re­in­force­ments to pro­tect gov­ern­ment build­ings in the Green Zone from any at­tempt by pro­test­ers to storm them.

The main lines of de­fense re­main the bridges, where se­cu­rity forces have built up bar­ri­cades, fired vol­leys of tear gas and stun grenades and re­sumed us­ing live am­mu­ni­tion.

Fired at point-blank range, the tear gas can­is­ters have pierced pro­test­ers’ skulls and chests, killing at least 16 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said it has found the mil­i­tary-grade can­is­ters were Ser­bian – and Ira­nian-made.

Rights groups have also raised the alarm over the ar­rest and in­tim­i­da­tion of ac­tivists and medics, who have re­ported be­ing shad­owed by uniden­ti­fied se­cu­rity forces.

Pub­lic anger erupted last month over wide­spread cor­rup­tion and lack of jobs, then es­ca­lated into calls for the en­tire rul­ing sys­tem to be over­turned.

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

It is ranked the 12th most cor­rupt coun­try in the world, ac­cord­ing to Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional.

Ab­del-Mahdi came to power in Oc­to­ber 2018 pledg­ing to tackle those is­sues but now stands ac­cused of over­see­ing the bloody crack­down of protests. “Ab­del-Mahdi’s po­si­tion means more to him than the blood of Iraqis,” charged a tribal dig­ni­tary who was protest­ing in Bagh­dad Fri­day.

The premier’s po­si­tion looked pre­car­i­ous when protests be­gan: the two spon­sors of his gov­ern­ment seemed to agree on his ouster and Par­lia­ment de­manded he ap­pear for ques­tion­ing. He even pre­pared a res­ig­na­tion speech to de­liver live on tele­vi­sion, gov­ern­ment sources told AFP, but top lead­ers ap­pear to have reached a con­sen­sus he would stay.

In an ap­par­ent pro­jec­tion of nor­malcy, state tele­vi­sion aired a recorded ad­dress by Ab­del-Mahdi to Cabi­net min­is­ters Thurs­day in which he dis­cussed the 2020 bud­get. He has pro­posed a se­ries of re­forms to ap­pease pro­test­ers, in­clud­ing hir­ing drives, rais­ing wel­fare and launch­ing in­fra­struc­ture projects.

Fri­day, the coun­try’s top Shi­ite re­li­gious scholar Grand Ay­a­tol­lah Ali al-Sis­tani said there should be “no more pro­cras­ti­na­tion” on find­ing a “road map” to end the cri­sis. –

An Iraqi pro­tester uses a sling­shot to hurl stones dur­ing clashes with se­cu­rity forces in Bagh­dad.

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