Iraqi protesters and security forces clash on third anniversary of pro-reform movement

Commemoration comes as political factions remain in a stand-off over forming a new government nearly one year since an early general election

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Iraqi protesters skirmished with security forces in central Baghdad on Saturday as thousands gathered to mark three years since anti-government demonstrations swept through major cities in central and southern Iraq.

There was tight security in the heart of the capital and security forces closed roads leading to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the months-long protests movement.

Anti-riot police fanned out across the city and checkpoints were set up to search people entering the square.

Roads leading to the Green Zone, the seat of key government offices, Parliament and foreign embassies as well as residences of senior politicians, were also blocked.

Concrete blast walls were erected on Al Jumhuriya Bridge leading to the fortified zone, with security personnel stationed top, behind sand bags.

On Friday, security forces conducted door-to-door search operations in the nearby Karrada neighbourhood where many activists live and operate. Posters of politicians with crosses on their faces and flyers were confiscated.

Protesters waved Iraqi flags or draped them over their shoulders as they gathered on Saturday, with many carrying photos of loved ones who were killed by security forces during the protests.

“Whether you kill ten or one hundred we will not abandon our cause,” they chanted, repeating one of the popular slogans of 2019 protests.

"We are out today against the agents who have been ruling Iraq for more than 20 years now without any legal basis through rigged elections, and they want to continue," a protester who asked to be identified only as Abu Ethar Al Saiedi told The National.

Owing to previous injuries to his back, Mr Al Saiedi left Tahrir Square when scuffles broke out between the security forces and protesters, but kept posting updates on Twitter from his phone.

"Iraq has lost its sovereignty, thanks to Iran and its agents in Iraq," he said. "Regardless of affiliation, I'm out as an Iraqi for the sake of Iraq's sovereignty."

Some protesters threw stones at officers and removed the first metal barrier on Al Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads from the square to the Green Zone. But they could not go past the blast concrete blast walls as troops fired tear gas to disperse them.

Security officials said 28 people were injured, including 19 security personnel.

The Security Media Cell said "infiltrators" hurled Molotov cocktails and were carrying hunting rifles and other weapons.

Two protesters were arrested with marbles, a catapult and flak jackets, it added.

Some protesters tried to stop those attacking the security forces and move them away from the square.

More protesters gathered at Al Nisour Square on the western side of the Green Zone, as well as in provinces in southern Iraq. The protests were relatively peaceful compared to the rally in Tahrir Square.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered security forces to "protect the peaceful protesters, stressing on them not to open fire or use other illegal means in dealing with the demonstrations," his office said on Friday.

Mr Al Kadhimi also called on the protesters to "co-operate with the security forces in protecting government institutions and public and private properties".

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) called for all sides to avoid violence.

"As we remember the victims of October 2019, we reiterate that the right to peaceful protest is essential in a democracy," Unami said.

"While we salute Iraqi security forces for handling the current protests professionally so far, we call on all to refrain from violence and prevent escalation."

By late afternoon, the Protests Central Committee called on the protesters to withdraw and gather again on October 25.

The committee demanded that an interim government formed by "nationalist leaders not from the same corrupt political parties" be set up to run the country, under the supervision of the UN.

"We call upon you to get ready on October 25 to put an end to the corruption if our demands are not met by the political forces," it said in a statement read out by one of the activists.

In 2019, demonstrators, mostly young people, camped in Tahrir Square for months to demand an end to widespread corruption, poor public services and high unemployment.

They also called for an overhaul to the political system, in place since 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, as well as early elections.

The movement petered out owing to the government’s heavy-handed response and the coronavirus pandemic. At least 600 people died as security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, while thousands were wounded.

Dozens of activists were assassinated or disappeared, and many fled the country.

The grass roots protests have been the largest and most effective in Iraq since Saddam was ousted, and led to the resignation of the government and the approval of new election laws.

Their commemoration coincides with escalating political tension over forming a new government nearly one year since early parliamentary elections.

The general election last October, the fifth parliamentary vote for a full-term government since 2003, was followed by disputes and a stand-off between the main political groups.

The main quarrel is between the two largest Shiite blocs over who will form the government and how to divide critical posts, including ministerial positions.

The process ground to a halt when the bloc endorsed by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr resigned from Parliament, seeking to dissolve the legislative body and hold snap elections.

Iraq's latest crisis escalated at the end of August with Mr Al Sadr's supporters clashing with the army and the Iran-backed factions after weeks of protests around the Parliament building.

More than 30 of the cleric's supporters died and hundreds were wounded in nearly 24 hours of violence that ended when he called on his supporters to stand down, demanding an end even to all protests.

The Sadrists joined Saturday's protests but activists tried to separate themselves from the cleric's followers. Some of Mr Al Sadr's supporters held up pictures of their leader as well as those of his late father, also a prominent cleric, and chanted slogans against their rivals.

Updated: October 02, 2022, 11:50 AM