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