Iraq protesters keep up rallies despite pressure from riot police

Demonstrators often gather in Tahrir Square in Baghdad. (File/AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2020

Iraq protesters keep up rallies despite pressure from riot police

  • Police shot four protesters dead on Saturday
  • University students in Baghdad have mostly thrown rocks at riot police but some have tossed Molotov cocktails.

BAGHDAD: Security forces shot live rounds to clear protest hotspots in Baghdad and southern Iraq for a second day Sunday, sparking skirmishes with demonstrators determined to keep up their movement.
Violence has resurged in the capital and Shiite-majority south this week, with more than 15 people killed as anti-government activists ramped up their road closures and sit-ins while security forces sought to snuff out the campaign.
On Saturday, four protesters were shot dead as riot police stormed protest camps across the country, according to medics, stoking fears of a broader crackdown.
But the demonstrators returned in large numbers throughout the evening and by Sunday morning, they were rallying again.
In Basra, hundreds of students protested over riot police’s dismantling of their main protest camp the previous day, according to an AFP correspondent.
Others gathered in the holy city of Najaf and university students led a protest in Kut, where they erected new tents to replace those taken down the previous day.
In Baghdad, young demonstrators on Saturday flooded their main encampment at Tahrir Square and security forces continued using live rounds the next morning in a bid to disperse small rallies in nearby Khallani and Wathba squares.
That left at least 17 protesters wounded, a police source told AFP, but security forces stopped short of entering Tahrir Square.
University students were planning to march on Sunday from a Baghdad campus to Tahrir Square, and other student-led rallies are planned for this week.
The young demonstrators have mostly thrown rocks at riot police but some have tossed Molotov cocktails.
In Nasiriyah to the south, security forces Sunday also fired live rounds to disperse protesters, who were angered by authorities pushing them out of thoroughfares around their main protest camp in Habbubi Square.
At least 50 protesters suffered bullet wounds and around 100 were impacted by tear gas in brief skirmishes, a medical source told AFP.
The youth-dominated protests erupted on October 1 in outrage over lack of jobs, poor services and rampant corruption.
They spiralled into outraged calls for a government overhaul after they were met with violence.
Protesters are now specifically demanding snap elections, the appointment of an independent premier and the prosecution of anyone implicated in corruption or recent bloodshed.
Parliament has passed a new electoral law and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi submitted his resignation in December, but he still serves in a caretaker role and authorities have otherwise failed to act on the protesters’ demands.
“Unaccountability and indecisiveness are unworthy of Iraqi hopes, courageously expressed for four months now,” the United Nations’ top Iraq official, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said on Saturday.
“While death and injury tolls continue to rise, steps taken so far will remain hollow if not completed.”
Activists have long worried that their movement could be snuffed out after firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr dropped his support on Friday.
The notoriously fickle militia leader-turned-politician backed the protests when they first started and called on the government to resign — even though he controls the largest bloc in parliament and top ministerial posts.
Sadr’s supporters had widely been recognized as the best-organized and well-stocked protesters in Tahrir.
But after holding an anti-US rally in Baghdad on Friday that was attended by thousands, Sadr said he no longer wanted to be involved in the separate regime change movement.
Within hours, his supporters were dismantling their tents in protest camps across the country and riot police began moving in.
Analysts said Sadr was striving to both maintain his street credibility and win favor with Iraq’s powerful neighbor Iran.
Sadr has complex ties with Iran. He is completing advanced religious studies in the holy city of Qom, but has often worked against Iranian-backed parties in Iraqi politics.
Iran holds tremendous political and military sway in Iraq and will likely have a major say in who Abdel Mahdi’s replacement will be.
Talks over the next premier remain at a stalemate in Baghdad in the absence of two key brokers — Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi military powerhouse Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
Both were killed in a US drone strike on Baghdad on January 3, which outraged Iraq and fueled calls for the 5,200 US troops deployed there to leave.


Iraqis rally to help needy families as virus hits, economy falters

Updated 05 April 2020

Iraqis rally to help needy families as virus hits, economy falters

  • The ministry of health reported 56 coronavirus deaths
  • The World Bank says one in five Iraqis lives under the poverty line

BAGHDAD: On an abandoned sidewalk in Baghdad, under strict government curfew to contain the novel coronavirus, a handful of volunteers with masks and gloves make food packages for needy families.
“What we’re doing is a humanitarian duty toward society, and anyone who can afford it should do the same,” said Abu Hashim, an Iraqi businessman in his fifties packing non-perishable goods outside a lonely storefront in the Iraqi capital’s east.
The health ministry says COVID-19 has killed 56 Iraqis and infected more than 800 others. But many suspect the real numbers to be much higher, as only a few thousand people from a population of 40 million have been tested.
In a bid to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, authorities have imposed a countrywide lockdown, ordering schools and most shops shut.
While the government is still paying salaries and pensions to millions, Iraq’s modest private-sector economy has come to a grinding halt overnight.
Iraq is OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, but is ranked among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. The World Bank says one in five Iraqis lives under the poverty line.
Sensing that relying on authorities would be unwise, young activists, community figures and local religious leaders have come together to try to support those with no income.
Using donations to buy essentials, like lentils, beans, rice and sugar, they pack supplies in plastic bags, talk their way through checkpoints and distribute them across the city.
Mustafa Issa, a 31-year-old Iraqi Shiite Muslim who helps distribute food to more than 450 families, told AFP he felt bound by a religious duty to help.
“It’s not like when we were under embargo in the 1990s,” he said, referring to crippling international sanctions imposed on Iraq under former dictator Saddam Hussein that made even basic foodstuffs unavailable.
“Baghdad is full of food right now, but people can’t buy it. One construction worker we support has a family of eight, and suddenly has no income. Another man had sold his cooking gas canister to buy food. A third sold his phone,” he said.
In a society that deeply values abundance and generosity, particularly at the dinner table, some are too proud to admit they need help.
“One woman walked halfway across the city to ask for help at another mosque so no one from her own neighborhood would recognize her,” Issa said.
One government official told AFP that almost half the population could be food-poor by May, adding that authorities were studying options for subsidies.
The country imports most of its staples, including rice, meat and wheat. Officials say Iraq’s $60 billion in reserves would cover more than a year of food imports, but already prime minister-designate Adnan Zurfi on Saturday expressed worry that the government might have to cut public-sector wages.
Issa was not taking any chances.
“We don’t know when this crisis will end. It could go on until July. Some of us are storing goods for later,” he said.
“This is more dangerous than Daesh,” he added, referring to Daesh that swept through a third of Iraq in 2014.
That conflict further ravaged Iraq’s dilapidated medical infrastructure, and there are fears a spike in COVID-19 cases would overwhelm hospitals.
Iraq, which relies on oil revenues for more than 90 percent of its state budget, is also facing the lowest crude prices in more than a decade and a paralyzed political class unable to reach consensus over a new cabinet.
Some Iraqis are taking public health into their own hands.
Asaad Al-Saadi, 40, has turned his Baghdad home into a makeshift workshop, producing face masks to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
“I saw the pandemic was spreading quickly and the simplest ways to fight it weren’t available,” Saadi said.
He bought two sewing machines and now produces around 1,000 masks per day. They are distributed in packs of 10 to needy families.
Saadi is also considering making other kinds of protective gear for under-equipped health workers.
Such grassroots efforts have swept through the provincial capitals of the south, down to the oil-rich port city of Basra.
Some are led by Iraqi women, in a country that remains broadly conservative and where just 15 percent of working-age women are employed.
Free food, money discretely slipped to desperate Iraqis, landlords suspending rent payments — initiatives all independent of government or political directives.
Mohammad Jabboury, a farm owner in Iraq’s west organizing food distributions and urging landlords to lower rents, expressed a sense of obligation toward those less fortunate.
“It’s our duty to help those in need until God saves us from this pandemic,” he said.

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