Iraq begins talks on constitution to calm protests as 13 demonstrators are killed

Public anger continues on Tuesday after clashes with security forces

Iraqi protesters gather as they block the entrance of Umm Qasr Port, during ongoing anti-government protests, south of Basra, Iraq November 3, 2019. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani
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Talks on amendments to the Iraqi constitution began on Tuesday as Iraqi security forces shot dead at least 13 protesters in 24 hours.

The first meeting of a parliamentary committee formed last month to oversee the drafting of constitutional adjustments took place in Parliament, with officials hoping it would help to meet the public's demands and calm weeks of protests.

Iraq has experienced massive anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad and across the south since the start of October.

Protesters are calling for an overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.

"The committee is represented by Iraq's three main components and all minorities," an Iraqi official told The National.

The committee must submit a report of recommended changes to Parliament within the next few months, the official said.

Protesters have accused the government and major political parties of corruption and incompetence.

Parliament made changes in late October to placate the protesters but many said this was too little, too late.

The reforms included lower salaries for officials, forming the constitutional committee and dissolving all provincial and local councils outside the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region.

The public is angered by reports of security forces killing protesters across the country and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's refusal to call early elections.

So far at least 260 people have been killed as a result of the government's crackdown on protests.

Internet access was cut in Baghdad amid renewed clashes in the capital on Tuesday.

After eight people were killed during the day on Monday, security forces shot dead at least five others overnight or early on Tuesday.

One was killed when shots were fired towards a funeral procession held for another protester who died hours earlier, security and medical sources said.

At least three of the five protesters killed were in the southern city of Umm Qasr, where troops were trying to reopen a key port that was shut down by anti-government protesters for three days.

Umm Qasr, on the Arabian Gulf, is Iraq’s main port used for oil exports and the import of goods.

The bloodshed of the past month has created a divide between the government and protesters that will be difficult to close, said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore.

"The political classes need to build public trust but in this they have a massive handicap," Mr Haddad said.

Iraqi protests have routinely been met with empty promises, he said.

"Given this track record, many Iraqis are understandably sceptical that the political classes will now do anything to curtail their own power and privilege," Mr Haddad said.

The head of the UN's mission to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said she was "appalled by the continued bloodshed".

"People’s frustration is not to be underestimated or misread," Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said on Twitter.

"Violence only begets violence. Peaceful demonstrators must be protected. It is high time for national dialogue.

The British embassy in Baghdad condemned the violence against demonstrators and called on the government to "ensure that all security forces protect protesters and act appropriately".

"Peaceful protest is the right of the Iraqi people. Violence against them is unacceptable," it said.