Three Iraq pro­test­ers killed in clashes as forces clear streets

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

Bagh­dad, Iraq - Three pro­test­ers were shot dead in Iraq on Satur­day in clashes with se­cu­rity forces clear­ing out streets and squares oc­cu­pied for months by anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tors, stok­ing fears of a wider crack­down.

The fresh vi­o­lence came a day after pop­ulist cleric Mo­q­tada Sadr an­nounced he would no longer back the youth-dom­i­nated move­ment, in­stead hold­ing his own rally in Bagh­dad to de­mand US troops leave Iraq.

Pro­test­ers feared the with­drawal of his sup­port could pave the way for au­thor­i­ties to sup­press their move­ment and by Satur­day evening, clashes had bro­ken out be­tween riot po­lice and demon­stra­tors across Iraq.

In the south­ern flash­point of Nasiriyah, two pro­test­ers were shot dead and some 20 wounded.

An­other demon­stra­tor was shot dead and more than 40 were wounded in skir­mishes in Bagh­dad, a med­i­cal source said.

Since Satur­day morn­ing, se­cu­rity forces had been us­ing tear gas and live rounds to clear protest camps in the cap­i­tal, with a re­porter see­ing some wield­ing ba­tons chase a group of young pro­test­ers. A medic said she saw riot po­lice set fire to large tents used as field clin­ics to treat wounded demon­stra­tors.

The city’s mil­i­tary com­mand an­nounced it had re­taken con­trol of Bagh­dad’s Ahrar Bridge, a flash­point for clashes be­tween se­cu­rity forces and demon­stra­tors for months. It also pushed pro­test­ers out of Ta­yaran Square and Mo­ham­mad Qasim high­way, where new sit-ins this week were in­tended to pres­sure au­thor­i­ties into en­act­ing lon­gawaited re­forms.

Se­cu­rity forces had not yet en­tered the main protests camp in Tahrir Square, where young men had de­ployed car­ry­ing black shields made out of metal drums, on which they had painted the words ‘Tahrir Shield Squad’.

Sadr, a mili­tia­man-turned­politi­cian, is no­to­ri­ous for switch­ing po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions with dizzy­ing speed.

He backed the protests when they erupted in Oc­to­ber and called on the gov­ern­ment to re­sign - even though he con­trols par­lia­ment’s largest bloc and other top posts. But last week, he called for a sep­a­rate rally to de­mand 5,200 US troops leave Iraq, after a US strike on Bagh­dad killed top Iraqi and Ira­nian com­man­ders ear­lier this month.

Thou­sands streamed into Bagh­dad for Fri­day’s rally and while Sadr did not at­tend, he hailed the turnout and said he would no longer be in­volved in the anti-gov­ern­ment cam­paign.

The about-face prompted Sadr sup­port­ers, who had earned the rep­u­ta­tion as the most wellor­gan­ised demon­stra­tors, to dis­man­tle their camps across the coun­try. In Hilla, Di­waniyah, Kut, Amarah and the Shi­ite shrine city of Na­jaf, tents were stripped down to their metal frames on Satur­day.

In the south­ern port city of Basra, se­cu­rity forces stormed a protest camp and forcibly dis­persed ac­tivists overnight, a cor­re­spon­dent re­ported.

The tents were burned down and mu­nic­i­pal staff were seen clear­ing the charred re­mains on Satur­day to re­open the square.

But a crowd of pro­test­ers re­turned in the af­ter­noon to try to re­sume their rally, clash­ing with se­cu­rity forces.

One young ac­tivist in Bagh­dad ac­cused Sadr of green­light­ing a wider crack­down by pulling po­lit­i­cal cover. “When your peo­ple started leav­ing, the riot po­lice came at 3.00am and took the whole (Ahrar) Bridge. Why?” he asked an­grily.

The pro­test­ers have been call­ing for snap polls un­der a new elec­toral law, an in­de­pen­dent prime min­is­ter and ac­count­abil­ity for cor­rupt of­fi­cials and for those who or­dered vi­o­lence against demon­stra­tors.

More than 470 peo­ple have been killed in protest-re­lated vi­o­lence since Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to a tally.

The protest move­ment took a se­ri­ous hit in re­cent weeks as US-Iran ten­sions sky­rock­eted, threat­en­ing to over­whelm Iraq and eclipse the cam­paign for sweep­ing re­form.

A US strike out­side the Bagh­dad air­port on Jan­uary 3 killed Ira­nian gen­eral Qasem Soleimani and a top Iraqi com­man­der, in­fu­ri­at­ing Iraqi of­fi­cials.

Par­lia­ment de­nounced the strike as a vi­o­la­tion of Iraqi sovereignt­y and passed a non-bind­ing res­o­lu­tion de­mand­ing that all for­eign forces, in­clud­ing 5,200 US troops help­ing fight the Is­lamic State group, should leave.

Iran re­tal­i­ated by launch­ing a wave of mis­siles at US troops sta­tioned in Iraq. It was an un­prece­dented at­tack on US troops in Iraq, who had faced a wave of smaller, proxy as­saults in re­cent months that killed one US con­trac­tor and one Iraqi soldier.


Pro­test­ers al­low an am­bu­lance to pass by at a make-shift road­block in the city of Nasiriyah in Iraq’s south­ern Dhi Qar prov­ince on Satur­day

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