Protesters killed in Baghdad as violence flares at anti-government rallies

Demonstrators are demanding those behind the killings of activists in Iraq are arrested

Two protesters have died after being shot as clashes erupted between demonstrators and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, Iraqi security officials and a rights monitor said.

Security forces on Tuesday used live ammunition to disperse crowds after protesters began throwing stones, witnesses and Iraqi officials told AFP.

Iraqi protesters were gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Tuesday to demand accountability for the assassination of dozens of prominent activists in recent months.

Shortly before sunset, the peaceful protests turned violent.

Ali Al Bayati, a member of the semi-official Iraqi Human Rights Commission told The National that tens of people were injured and security vehicles were set on fire in Tahrir Square.

Anti-riot police and army troops were deployed early morning in the capital's main intersections and squares, ahead of the planned protests.

"We will go out and protest against the government's lack of action and broken promises to meet our demands," Inas Jabbar, an activist from Baghdad, told The National.

"We need accountability. We are surrounded by security and police in Tahrir Square but we will fight until we get justice.”

A wave of deadly attacks on anti-corruption activists and journalists in Iraq has sparked mounting calls to boycott October parliamentary elections, as perpetrators go unpunished.

Some protesters were seen holding posters of activist Ihab Al Wazni, who was killed earlier this month near his home in the southern city of Karbala.

Authorities have consistently failed to publicly identify or charge the perpetrators of the killings, which have not been claimed.

Tuesday’s protests have been arranged under the slogan "I'm Iraqi. Who has killed me?"

Traffic was normal in the capital and authorities did not close roads and bridges.

Small protests also took place early on Tuesday in the provinces of Basra, Najaf and Karbala, as well as on the main highway linking Baghdad to southern provinces.

Activists have repeatedly blamed Iran-linked armed groups that wield influence in Iraq for the killings and intimidation.

Al Wazni had for many years criticised Iraqi armed groups and Iran's meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

The day after he was killed, prominent journalist Ahmed Hassan was also shot in southern Iraq.

Iraq's protest movement started in late 2019, calling for an end to foreign meddling in Iraq's internal affairs, adequate public services and employment opportunities.

Protesters also sought to oust the government, which they believe to be corrupt.

Unlike in 2019, Tuesday's protests were more organised, online and on the ground. Demonstrators gathered in three main areas in Baghdad, and hundreds of protesters joined from the southern provinces.
"We came here today for the sake of our martyrs," Yassin Haider Al Saadi, a 21-year-old medical student from Babil province south of Baghdad told The National.
"We seek justice for them by finding their killers and holding those who protect them accountable," he added.
Mr Al Saadi was protesting at Al Nisoor Square in the west of the capital, receiving updates over the phone from other demonstrators at Tahrir Square, the epicenter of 2019 protests on the opposite side of the capital. 
"None of our demands are met. Corrupt officials and the thieves are still free and no one in the government has the courage to chase them simply because this government is brought by the same corrupt parties," he said from the shade of a tree he shared with others from the searing heat.
Mr Al Saadi called Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi's promises to find the killers of activists and fight corruption "all lies". 
Dania Shamas has been taking part in the recent protests vowing not to give up, even in the face of violence.
"Today's protests show that the strength and determination inside us will never die," said Ms Shamas, 31, as she was waiting a call on whether to walk to the nearby Judiciary Council building or to Tahrir Square.
"We are out for the sake of our country. Death with dignity is better that life with humiliation," Ms Shamas added.

Renad Mansour, senior research fellow and head of the Iraq initiative at London’s Chatham House, said the government will most likely face more protests this summer.

"There's a huge crisis facing the government's ability to provide services, going the summer authorities are concerned about the hot weather, drought, lack of electricity, especially that it is aware that Iran will cut its electricity supply," Mr Mansour told The National.

The Iraqi expert said unlike October 2019, the current government has learnt how to deal with protests.

"The leadership have learnt to anticipate something like October 2019 protests far better today and part of that has been that they go after potential influencers and leaders before they get to the streets," he said, adding that this increases the campaign of assassinations.

From the southern city of Kut, Ezz Al Deen Kareem travelled for more than two hours to reach Baghdad to protest against the rogue militias that are accused of killing protesters and activists.
"Those parties with militias and uncontrolled weapons have turned the country into a jungle," said Mr Kareem, 30.
"As long as these gangs are among us there will be no security, no stability and no social justice," he added, hoisting an Iraqi flag over his shoulder. But he is optimistic for the future.
"We have achieved a lot since 2019 with the first and the most important achievement is that we are now courageous enough to raise up against them, and I believe that things will be changed steps by steps," he said.
He sees an opportunity in the upcoming elections for change, calling for widespread participation from public.
His friend Ahmed Al Badri from the southern city of Nassiriyah disagrees.
"Entering the election is like committing a suicide," Mr Al Badri said, wearing an Iraqi map pendant, demanding security and protection for independent candidates vying for parliament seats in October elections.
"The current atmosphere is not encouraging," he added.
"We demand fair and safe elections monitored by the United Nations and militias and their parties must not take part," he added.
"We are out to build a nation, we want to salvage Iraq," he said.

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