Four shot dead in new crackdown as Sadr pulls out of Iraq protests

Anti-government protesters set fire to a busy intersection in central Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 26 January 2020

Four shot dead in new crackdown as Sadr pulls out of Iraq protests

  • Security forces move in with live fire and tear gas after populist cleric withdraws his supporters

BAGHDAD: Four Iraqi civilians were shot dead and dozens wounded when Iraqi security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on Saturday in raids on protest camps in Baghdad and the south.

The new offensive to end the protests came after populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr withdrew his support for the anti-government demonstrators. Sadr, who has millions of supporters, had protecting the protesters from attacks by security forces and snipers deployed by Iran-backed militias.

His supporters began withdrawing from sit-ins early on Saturday, and the security forces moved in. There were violent clashes as authorities began removing concrete barriers near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, where demonstrators have camped out for months, and across at least one main bridge over the Tigris River.

Security forces wielding batons chased a group of young protesters, and riot police set fire to large tents used as field clinics to treat wounded demonstrators.

In the southern city of Basra, security forces raided the main anti-government sit-in overnight and deployed in force to stop protesters regrouping. Police arrested at least 16.

In Baghdad, at least one person was killed and more than 30 injured in clashes between police and protesters near Tahrir Square. Another three died and 14 were wounded in the southern city of Nassiriyah, when security forces took control of a bridge occupied for days by demonstrators.

Iraq’s security forces have used tear gas and live fire against mostly peaceful protesters since anti-government unrest broke out in Baghdad on Oct. 1. More than 450 people have died in the violence.

The demonstrators are demanding the removal of Iraq’s corrupt ruling elite, the provision of functioning public services and the end of interference in politics by foreign powers, especially Iran. The initial crackdown on the demonstrators was personally directed by Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

Sadr had supported the demands of protesters, but stopped short of calling all his followers to join in. Nevertheless, many did. In Basra on Saturday, protesters urged Sadr to reconsider his withdrawal of support, without which they feared attacks by security forces. 

One angry young activist in Baghdad accused Sadr of effectively giving his approval to a new crackdown. “When your people started leaving, the riot police came at 3 a.m. and took the whole Ahrar Bridge. Why?” he said.

Pope Francis and Iraqi President Barham Salih agreed after talks at the Vatican on Saturday that Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected. The president also met the Vatican’s two top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, its Foreign Minister.

The talks “focused on the challenges the country currently faces and on the importance of promoting stability and the reconstruction process, encouraging the path of dialogue and the search for suitable solutions in favor of citizens and with respect for national sovereignty,” a Vatican statement said.

Palestinian, Syrian refugees in Lebanon camps brace for virus

Updated 29 min 43 sec ago

Palestinian, Syrian refugees in Lebanon camps brace for virus

  • So far just one Palestinian, who lives outside a camp, and three Syrians have tested positive for COVID-19
  • Palestinian and Syrian refugees who live in cramped quarters, including tent camps where basic services like water are poor, are particularly vulnerable to the illness

BEIRUT: Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in overcrowded and rundown camps in Lebanon are bracing for the novel coronavirus as aid groups mobilize to help.
Lebanon is home to tens of thousands of Palestinians in camps that over the decades have become bustling neighborhoods, and at least 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the war next door.
So far just one Palestinian, who lives outside a camp, and three Syrians have tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 520 infections and 17 deaths across Lebanon, according to officials.
But Palestinian and Syrian refugees who live in cramped quarters, including tent camps where basic services like water are poor, are particularly vulnerable to the illness.
“The main concern remains... the spread of coronavirus in the overcrowded Palestine refugee camps where there are very limited possibilities for home isolation,” said Huda Samra, a spokeswoman for the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
The agency, she said, is looking to set up “isolation centers” inside the camps to quarantine anybody who needs it.
Similar structures are being set up for Syrians living in close quarters in seas of canvas tents in the east of the country, the UN refugee agency UNHCR says.
But deteriorating cases will have to be evacuated to Lebanese intensive care units, where aid workers fear there may not be enough beds.
Aid organizations have also been ramping up efforts to raise awareness about basic hygiene among both the Syrian and Palestinian communities.
The Norwegian Refugee Council says it has increased water deliveries and supplied soap and bleach to both.
Cars mounted with loudspeakers have been making the rounds of Palestinian camps, blaring messages about hand washing and not touching one’s face.
An AFP photographer recently saw volunteers in sky blue protective suits spray disinfectant in the gloomy narrow streets of the Shatila camp in Beirut.
More than 174,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, according to official figures, with most residing in camps ruled by Palestinian factions beyond the reach of Lebanese security forces.
But unofficial estimates say the Palestinians, whose forefathers fled the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, could number as many as 500,000.
And out of the 1.5 million Syrians Lebanon says it hosts since the civil war broke out in the neighboring country nine years ago, nearly one million are registered with the UNHCR as refugees.
Most of the Syrian refugees live in abject poverty and rely on handouts from aid groups to survive.
In both communities, the United Nations has promised to pay for tests or hospitalization if the need arises.
And because any serious surge in cases among refugees would further burden the Lebanese health care system, efforts are being made to strengthen existing hospitals to face the pandemic.
“We are working with the ministry of public health to support hospitals,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled.
“We will create additional wards with additional beds, including additional intensive care units so there is sufficient response capacity for all communities, Lebanese and refugees,” she said.
Despite all these preparations, non-governmental organizations fear discrimination against refugees will be an added challenge.
Lebanon has seen its population of 4.5 million swell by a third since the start of Syria’s war in 2011.
Many Lebanese blame Syrian refugees for the nation’s economic woes and authorities have often encouraged them to return home.
“Some media reports have made associations between refugees living in unhygienic circumstances and the coronavirus,” said NRC’s advocacy and information adviser in Lebanon, Elena Dikomitis.
“What is really important for us is to make sure people don’t start hiding symptoms or shy away from seeking treatment because of the existing discrimination and stigma.”
Human Rights Watch has said several Lebanese municipalities have imposed curfews to restrict the movement of Syrian refugees because of the virus.
Such action, it warned, could further impede treatment.
Palestinians, who some Lebanese accuse of having sparked the 1975-1990 civil war, face work restrictions and — like many Syrian refugees — live hand to mouth from daily wages.
Now a nationwide lockdown to stem COVID-19 has further battered the economy and impeded their access to jobs, Palestinians have been clamouring for help.
As part of an emergency relief plan, the agency “will be distributing some limited cash assistance in the coming weeks,” UNRWA’s Samra said.