Iraq protests dig in for third week, as politicians do the same

An Iraqi protester wearing a surgical mask gestures during clashes with security forces near the central bank in the capital Baghdad on Thursday, amid ongoing anti-government protests. — AFP

BAGHDAD — Baghdad, Nov 8, 2019 (AFP) - Anti-government protests in Iraq entered their third week with fresh bloodshed on Friday, as leaders appeared to have closed rank around the country's embattled premier.

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

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 on 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 on Thursday, a medical source said.

Despite the violence, thousands again flocked to the capital's main protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) 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 Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which has publicly backed the government after protests erupted.

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

On Friday, a Hashed source said 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.

In Missan province, two activists were killed on Wednesday by unknown assailants, security sources said.

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 on 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 said, but top leaders appear to have reached a consensus he would stay.

Moqtada Sadr, the populist cleric who had been the most vocal about the government's ouster, has gone silent amid reports he is in neighboring Iran.

In an apparent projection of normalcy, state television aired a recorded address by Abdel Mahdi to cabinet ministers on 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.

On Friday, the country's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said there should be "no more procrastination" on finding a "road-map" to end the crisis. — AFP