TEAR GAS IN TAHRIR SQUARE AS FAM­I­LIES JOIN SIT-IN

▶ Iraq toll mounts as one killed and 91 hurt but young demon­stra­tors vow to meet vi­o­lence with peace­ful ral­lies

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - PESHA MAGID Bagh­dad

Fire­works and tear gas ex­ploded over Tahrir Square last night, a day af­ter Iraq’s protests en­tered their sec­ond month.

The square was packed with fam­i­lies, stu­dents and young pro­test­ers as the de­mon­stra­tion has be­gun to re­sem­ble an al­most per­ma­nent sit-in.

Yes­ter­day, the crowds thinned a lit­tle from the record num­bers that turned out on Fri­day amid ru­mours of a crack­down by the mili­tia spread over so­cial me­dia.

But thou­sands stayed on the street, promis­ing they would not leave un­til the gov­ern­ment fell.

Tahrir Square in cen­tral Bagh­dad now re­sem­bles a minia­ture city, with tents set up pro­vid­ing med­i­cal aid, food, wa­ter, and even hair­cuts.

De­spite the packed crowds, pro­test­ers or­gan­ised and cleared path­ways for am­bu­lances and three-wheeled tuk­tuks to res­cue and re­trieve pro­test­ers in­jured on the front lines.

Se­cu­rity forces killed one pro­tester and wounded 91 oth­ers in Bagh­dad yes­ter­day, se­cu­rity and med­i­cal sources told Reuters. The lat­est ca­su­al­ties add to the more than 250 who have been killed since the protests erupted at the start of Oc­to­ber and 8,000 have been wounded.

Se­cu­rity forces have fired rub­ber bul­lets and tear gas di­rectly to­wards crowds of pro­test­ers, hit­ting some in the head and chest.

Iraq’s semi-of­fi­cial hu­man rights com­mis­sion said that 120 peo­ple were in­jured in a south­ern port town when se­cu­rity forces fired tear gas and live bul­lets to dis­perse hun­dreds of pro­test­ers near the vi­tal Umm Qasr port on the Ara­bian Gulf yes­ter­day.

Many of the pro­test­ers are young men and women, most be­low the age of 30, who have grown up in the era af­ter the 2003 Amer­i­can in­va­sion of Iraq that top­pled Sad­dam Hus­sein.

They are an­gered at en­demic cor­rup­tion, poor ser­vice pro­vi­sion and un­em­ploy­ment presided over by the same faces in gov­ern­ment for 16 years.

Iraq ranks 168th out of 180 coun­tries in terms of how cor­rupt it is, ac­cord­ing to Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional. De­spite Iraq’s im­mense oil wealth, one in five peo­ple live un­der the poverty line. Youth un­em­ploy­ment stands at 25 per cent, while young peo­ple un­der the age of 25 make up 60 per cent of Iraq’s 40 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion.

“The cor­rupt have taken over the coun­try,” said Ali Shuhada, 21, a film stu­dent. “Peo­ple don’t have homes or food, there are peo­ple on the street. Stu­dents grad­u­ate and have no work, they have no salaries.”

But the gov­ern­ment does not seem likely to meet pro­test­ers’ de­mands.

Re­ports sur­faced at the week­end that Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps Quds Force, vis­ited Iraq for a clan­des­tine meet­ing with in­flu­en­tial politi­cian Haidi Al Amiri.

Mr Al Amiri heads of one of Iraq’s largest par­lia­men­tary blocs and leads the Ira­nian-backed Badr Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Prior to the meet­ing, Mr Amiri and prom­i­nent cleric Muq­tada Al Sadr, whose Sairoun

coali­tion holds the great­est num­ber of seats in par­lia­ment, had re­port­edly been in talks to oust Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi.

Mr Suleimani re­port­edly in­structed Mr Amiri to con­tinue to back the prime min­is­ter, and the deal with Mr Sadr ap­pears to have fallen apart.

“The Ira­nian supreme leader has de­cided that the protest move­ment in Iraq poses an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Iran be­cause of the risk of fur­ther spread of those protests into Iran,” said Jen­nifer Cafarella, re­search di­rec­tor at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War.

“So the supreme leader is treat­ing Iraqi protests as equiv­a­lent, in some ways, to a ma­jor re­newed protest move­ment in­side of Iran.

“And that’s why the Ira­ni­ans are go­ing to such lengths to try and kill this in Iraq, to con­tain it there, be­cause they’re that wor­ried about their own sta­bil­ity in Iran.”

But even if Mr Mahdi were to re­sign, pro­test­ers say the gov­ern­ment would still be far from meet­ing their de­mands. Young peo­ple in the square say they want a deep and sys­temic over­haul.

“We want a com­plete change of gov­ern­ment,” said Athir Na­jem, 25, a grad­u­ate in act­ing.

Mr Suleimani also re­port­edly ad­vised top se­cu­rity of­fi­cials on how to re­spond to the first round of protests, telling them: “We in Iran know how to deal with protests.”

Over 150 were killed at the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber as snipers took aim at demon­stra­tors on the ground.

A gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion later found that 70 per cent of deaths be­tween Oc­to­ber 1 and 9 were caused by live bul­lets.

The protests paused briefly dur­ing the Shi­ite re­li­gious oc­ca­sion known Ar­baeen from Oc­to­ber 19 and 20.

But since the sec­ond round of protests broke out on Oc­to­ber 25, se­cu­rity forces have tar­geted pro­test­ers’ heads and bod­ies with mil­i­tary-grade, “skull-shat­ter­ing” tear-gas can­is­ters, a re­port by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said.

De­spite the vi­o­lence, Iraq’s young pro­test­ers said they are not afraid and will stay in the square un­til they achieve a com­plete change of gov­ern­ment and an end to Ira­nian in­ter­fer­ence in the coun­try.

“Why do we want them [Iran] out?” asked Mr Shuhada.

“Be­cause they are the ones aim­ing at us. Those from the riot forces fol­low the par­ties and the par­ties fol­low Iran, so for that, we say Iran, out, out.”

Iraq’s for­eign min­istry yes­ter­day also pushed back against for­eign in­flu­ence in the coun­try.

Pro­test­ers also gained the sup­port of Iraq’s re­li­gious elite, with the coun­try’s most se­nior cleric, Grand Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Al Sis­tani, us­ing his Fri­day ser­mon to crit­i­cise for­eign in­ter­fer­ence in the protests.

Many be­lieved the com­ments were di­rected at Tehran by a man whose word can make or break gov­ern­ments.

Mr Al Sis­tani also said that con­tin­ued vi­o­lence could lead to “civil con­flict”.

“No per­son or group, no side with a par­tic­u­lar view, no re­gional or in­ter­na­tional ac­tor may seize the will of the Iraqi peo­ple and im­pose its will on them,” he said.

Pro­test­ers have re­mained peace­ful de­spite the vi­o­lence they have been sub­jected to by se­cu­rity forces, but Ms Cafarella said that if sup­pres­sion con­tin­ues and the gov­ern­ment re­mains un­will­ing to meet­de­mands for change, then pro­test­ers could face a bleak choice.

“I’m of course wor­ried about the po­ten­tial for the loss of lives [of] pro­test­ers if, in fact, the Ira­ni­ans

de­cide to con­duct an­other round of vi­o­lence,” she said.

“I think the pro­test­ers, as a whole, will es­sen­tially have two choices which ev­ery protest move­ment which faces vi­o­lence has. First, dis­perse, go home and sur­vive and give up the rev­o­lu­tion. And [sec­ond], fight back.”

But pro­test­ers them­selves in­sisted they would re­main peace­ful, no mat­ter how much vi­o­lence they faced from the se­cu­rity forces.

“We will con­tinue peace­fully, said Ali Khrypt, 27.

“Peace is very im­por­tant be­cause vi­o­lence does not give birth to a na­tion, it does not bring rights.”

Mr Khrypt’s friend, rights ac­tivist Safaa Al Saray, was killed when he was hit on the head by a tear-gas can­is­ter on Jumhuriya Bridge on Oc­to­ber 28.

Mr Khrypt spoke as he sat in a makeshift fu­neral tent for his friend. “The law says ev­ery Iraqi has the right to demon­strate and lift our voice,” he said. “No mat­ter how they at­tack us we will not stop be­ing peace­ful.”

I’m of course wor­ried about the po­ten­tial for the loss of lives ... if the Ira­ni­ans de­cide to con­duct an­other round of vi­o­lence JEN­NIFER CAFARELLA Re­search di­rec­tor at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War

Reuters

Tehran has gone to great lengths to keep protests in Iraq from spilling over into Iran

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