Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

Iraq crackdown: the weekend Baghdad police tried to end the uprising

As Moqtada Al Sadr called back his supporters, security forces swept into protest camps across southern Iraq

Iraqi security forces fired bullets and tear gas in renewed clashes with protesters in Baghdad and other cities on Sunday, killing one demonstrator and injuring dozens.

Security troops tried to clear sit-in camps across the country and fired rounds in the air after protesters resisted with petrol bombs and stones.

One protester was killed in Baghdad, police sources said, and more than 100 demonstrators were hurt in the Iraqi capital and other cities, including 75 in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

The violence began overnight on Friday and the early hours of Saturday morning, when Iraqi anti-riot forces advanced towards Tahrir Square.

They pushed past massive concrete T-walls to Al Khilani Avenue, which borders the entrance to the square, and set alight tents, many of which were used to treat the wounded.

“I am a victim,” said Mohamed Al Seif, a young medic who volunteered at one of the tents that was destroyed by the security troops.

He knelt sweeping up the still-smoking ashes of his tent as he described the “boxing style” beating by security forces.

Mr Al Seif said the forces arrived about 10am.

“There were five us inside the tent. They beat all of us," he said. "They came aiming at us with live bullets."

After a call from influential cleric Moqtada Al Sadr to end to protests, remaining demonstrators faced a renewed crackdown.

Security troops advanced on protest centres across Iraq’s southern provinces, burning tents and violently dispersing protesters.

The attacks killed at least four, three in the southern city of Nasiriyah and one in Baghdad.

They come after days of increasing state violence against protesters on Baghdad’s Mohammed Al Qassem motorway.

Since the very start of the protests in October 2019, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has been a second home for protesters.

Young men and women created a mini-city including libraries, brightly painted walls, and kitchens set up to keep demonstrators well nourished.

As the protests went beyond four months, protesters took over more space, branching off from Tahrir Square to occupy three bridges, two squares, and in recent weeks the Mohammed Al Qassem motorway, a key artery for Baghdad traffic.

On Friday, Mr Al Sadr held his “million-man march” against the US presence in Iraq, packing the streets with thousands of his supporters. Most of the march was held in Jadariya, a neighbourhood about half an hour away from Tahrir.

The march ended early in the afternoon, with the cleric ordering his supporters home after releasing a statement calling for a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops.

But in Tahrir Square, some protesters eager to show that Mr Al Sadr did not represent them began to chant against him.

Later that night the cleric released a statement saying he was “disappointed” in the protesters who refused to go home, and withdrew his support for the movement.

Hours later, about 4am, security troops stormed Basra’s sit-in, burning tents and violently dispersing demonstrators.

In Baghdad, many Sadrists packed up their tents and went home, to the dismay of demonstrators.

“I told them not to go,” said Ali Meyahi, a member of the Sadr movement who remained in the square despite the cleric’s statement.

Mr Meyahi said he cried as he watched them leave.

“I could not go home, this is my nation," he said. "How could I leave my nation and go home?”

He blamed those who chanted against Mr Al Sadr for the pull-out.

“The half that opposed Sadr caused all of these problems," Mr Meyahi said. "After that Sadr said, 'I do not support you'.”

In the early hours of Saturday, security forces pushed the young protesters, who had blocked Mohammed Al Qassem motorway with burning tyres, back towards Tahrir Square.

They took back the Sinak and Ahrar bridges, advancing on Al Khilani by midmorning, burning tents mere metres away from the central square.

Standing next to the sooty remains of Mr Al Seif’s tent, a young protester was outraged.

“Today after Sadr left, the political parties and the anti-riot forces advanced on us,” said "Hassan".

“They say we follow America. What do we have to do with America? We don’t have a relationship with them. I came out for the nation. We came to get rid of the political parties.”

Mr Al Sadr provided political support, while his command over the Saraya Al Salam militia also provided an implicit protection for the protesters.

When he withdrew, protesters said it sent a message to political parties that they could fully clear the squares.

“Sadr gave them legitimacy to attack the protesters,” said "Amir".

Nizar Hamed stood next to the remains of the medical tent in which he had volunteered for three months. It had been reduced to ash, with only the metal frame and a sign reading “Made in Iraq,” remaining.

Mr Hamed showed a picture of the tent before the attack. Its walls had been decorated with a giant Iraqi flag and the message, “God is Great” emblazoned across the centre.

“This tent had the Iraqi flag. They burnt the name of God. How can they burn the Iraqi flag and the name of God?” he asked.

“They do not know Islam, religion, and they do not know Iraq. Those people only want money and are only interested in their salaries. Not more or less.”

Mr Hamed said that anti-riot forces advanced firing on them while he and his team slept in the tent where they had volunteered daily for three months.

“They called us infiltrators but I told them, 'We are here for humanitarian reasons. We’re not spoilers. Why would you burn our tent?'” Mr Hamed said.

He said that now the protesters were alone.

“Who do we have?” Mr Hamed asked, “There’s not a single human rights organisation defending us. no one protects us.”

Despite the violence, his colleague Mr Al Seif is determined to carry on assisting the protest movements’ wounded.

“Let them come back. Us or them,” he said, “I will continue until death.”

Updated: January 27, 2020 11:47 AM

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