Iraqi forces defending Baghdad’s Green Zone kill at least two protesters

The two supporters of Muqtada Al Sadr were the first casualties of the months-old protest movement started by the influential cleric to push for political change.

The Iraqi flag-draped coffins of the two protesters killed in Baghdad on Friday are driven through the capital's streets during their funeral procession on Saturday. Karim Kadim/AP Photo
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BAGHDAD // Iraqi forces killed at least two protesters while defending Baghdad’s Green Zone, officials said on Saturday, as the troubled country’s leaders warned against further escalation.

The two supporters of Muqtada Al Sadr were the first casualties of the months-old protest movement started by the influential cleric to push for political change.

They were buried on Saturday in the holy city of Najaf, which is home to the world’s largest cemetery where millions of people from Iraq’s Shiite majority are buried.

“The victims were buried ... in Wadi Al Salam cemetery,” said Sheikh Imad Al Kaabi, an official in the Sadr movement.

During the funeral, a relative of one of the deceased accused the state of using excessive force, saying the protesters faced “live and rubber bullets and tear gas”.

Friday saw the worst eruption of violence since Mr Al Sadr, the scion of an influential clerical family from Najaf, ordered his followers to take to the streets to demand reforms.

His supporters confronted the security forces and broke into the Green Zone, a sprawling fortified district in central Baghdad that hosts most of the country’s top institutions.

A small group managed to storm prime minister Haider Al Abadi’s office. They quickly pulled out.

The protesters faced a barrage of tear gas and generally stiffer resistance than three weeks earlier, when they broke into the Green Zone for the first time and stormed parliament.

Security and medical officials also said at least 57 people were wounded in Friday’s unrest. Security forces also used water cannon and sound bombs against the protesters, some of whom threw rocks and other debris.

Security forces also fired live rounds during the demonstration, mostly into the air, but officials said at least two protesters had died of bullet wounds.

Mr Al Abadi reacted to the latest breach by saying that “storming state institutions ... cannot be accepted”, but added that he supported the “demands of the peaceful protesters”.

Mr Al Sadr vowed on Friday that peaceful protests would continue, warning that “the revolution will take another form” if there were attempts to block them.

Mr Al Abadi has made several attempts to push through reforms aimed at curbing corruption and spending since he took the country’s top job in 2014.

His latest plan was to replace the current government of party-affiliated ministers with a cabinet of technocrats.

But he has faced resistance from key players, including within his own party, who are reluctant to give up a system of patronage that is the very source of their power.

Mr Al Sadr ostensibly supports Mr Al Abadi’s reform but every security breach in the Green Zone has made the premier look weaker and infuriated rival Shiite groups.

Parliament has failed to reconvene since protesters stormed it late last month. A session had been slated for this coming Thursday but Friday’s fresh breach raises questions over where to hold it.

That leaves Mr Al Abadi with few options, with tensions growing between Shiite armed groups even as Iraqi forces prepare for their most daunting military operations so far against ISIL.

“Restoring calm is key for Iraq to be able to move forward in finding a political solution based on inclusive consultations,” said Jan Kubis, the UN’s special envoy to Iraq.

But Kimberley Kagan, who heads the Institute for the Study of War, argued that the political crisis had deepened too much for all sides to agree on a face-saving solution.

“This conflict will protract and there will be winners and losers,” she said.

A two-hour curfew was slapped on Baghdad on Friday as riots wound up near the Green Zone, amid reports that Mr Al Sadr’s armed organisation and militia groups were on the brink of a dangerous confrontation.

* Agence France-Presse