Anti-government protests resume in Iraq after bloodshed

Demonstrations scheduled for Friday began early as hundreds gathered in Tahrir Square on Thursday night

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Iraqi police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters in Baghdad on Friday as a second phase of anti-government demonstrations began across the country.

Heavy security forces were deployed in the Iraqi capital ahead of the new round of protests, which started on Thursday night and could grow after receiving the endorsement of influential cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

Explosions, likely tear gas canisters, were heard in the centre of Baghdad, and security forces used water cannon early on Friday morning to hold back protesters at an entrance to the capital's high-security Green Zone, which hosts government offices and foreign embassies.

AlKasim Al Abadi, 29, said he saw a severely injured fellow protester being taken from the capital's Tahrir Square at around 10am. There was no official report of injuries or deaths but security officials said more than 30 people were taken to hospital with breathing difficulties.

A woman who gave her name as Rania told The National that she was going protesting with her young son because they had no economic opportunities. "We get nothing from the state, there is no state," she said.

Abdullah Ajeel, 18, said he wanted a change of government. “We want our rights, we want a civil government,” he said.

In a televised address late on Thursday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said people would be free to exercise their right to demonstrate but warned violence would not be tolerated.

Mr Abdul Mahdi said a government collapse would drag Iraq into further turmoil.

"The resignation of the government today without a constitutional alternative will lead the country into chaos," he said.

He repeated reforms announced after the protests, including a Cabinet reshuffle, job opportunities for unemployed youth and a new court to try corrupt officials.

Mr Abdul Mahdi also announced that government salaries, including for top officials, would be gradually halved, with funds redirected to a social security fund for the country's poorest.

Iraqi protestors wave Iraq's national flags frome a car;s sun-roof as they take part in anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on October 24, 2019. Anti-government rallies renewed across Iraq late on October 24, 2019, the second phase of protests denouncing corruption and unemployment before evolving into calls for an overhaul of the political system that turned deadly earlier this month and which could balloon after the endorsement of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. / AFP / -
Protestors began anti-government demonstrations ahead of officially sanctioned action on Friday. AFP

Iraq was rocked by demonstrations in early October against corruption and unemployment before evolving into calls for an overhaul of the political system.

The protests quietened down after a crushing response by security forces and were scheduled to resume on Friday – the first anniversary of Mr Abdul Mahdi taking office and the deadline set by Iraq's highest Shiite authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani for the government to meet protesters' demands.

But hundreds hit the streets of the Iraqi capital earlier than anticipated. They gathered in Tahrir Square on Thursday night, carrying Iraq's tricolour flag and calling for the country's entrenched political class to be uprooted.

By 3am the number of protesters in the square had swelled to around 300, a paramedic named Khaldun Abbas told The National. They attempted to cross the Jumhuriya bridge into the Green Zone,  but were blocked by security forces using tear gas and water cannon, he said.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, demonstrators said they would remain in the streets "until the regime falls". Protests were also reported in Najaf and Diwaniyah on Friday.

The demonstrations are expected to grow in size through the day. Mr Al Sistani's weekly sermon at the noontime Friday prayer will be the first signal of how the rest of the day could develop.

But the real test will be the afternoon, when protests typically pick up and when many are expecting to see supporters of Mr Al Sadr, who controls the largest parliamentary bloc, hit the streets.

The mass rallies that erupted on October 1 were unprecedented in recent Iraqi history because of their spontaneity and independence, and because of the brutal violence with which they were met.

At least 157 people were killed, said the report by a government investigation, published on Tuesday, which acknowledged that "excessive force" was used.

Most of them were protesters in Baghdad, with 70 per cent shot in the head or chest.

In response, Mr Abdul Mahdi issued a list of measures to ease public anger, including employment drives and higher pensions for the families of protesters who died.

One in five people live under the poverty line in Iraq and youth unemployment is about 25 per cent, the World Bank says.

The rates are staggering for Opec's second-biggest oil producer, which ranks as the 12th most corrupt state in the world, Transparency International says.

The country has been ravaged by decades of conflict that calmed in 2017 with a declared victory over ISIS.

What followed was a period of relative calm, with security forces lifting checkpoints and concrete blast walls, and traffic allowed in city streets at times once thought too dangerous.

Restrictions even softened around the Green Zone but they were reinstated as protests picked up in October in Tahrir, just across the Tigris River.

Authorities also imposed an internet blackout, which has been mostly lifted although social media is still blocked.

Activists have circumvented these restrictions to call for Friday's demonstrations.

The protest movement has brought many of Iraq's deepest divisions to the surface, gripping the country's Shiite-majority areas while the mostly Kurdish north and Sunni west have remained quiet.

The powerful Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitary force, whose political branch is the second-largest parliamentary bloc, also announced its support for the government.

It claimed the demonstrations were a "conspiracy" by the US and Israel, and said it was "ready" to back authorities.

But others have extended a hand to the protesters, none more clearly than Mr Al Sadr.

He called on the government to resign in early October but this week much more emphatically backed the protests, giving his supporters approval to join in.

Mr Al Sadr has told members of his own paramilitary force to be on "high alert," and they could be seen in parts of Baghdad in a clear show of force.

The UN has urged the government to "draw on lessons learnt" to keep protests peaceful.

Interior Minister Yassin Al Yasseri was in Tahrir Square on Thursday night to reassure protesters that the security forces would protect them, his office said.