Security forces must refrain from using violence against Iraqi protesters, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said on Monday as he attempted to quell public anger at the government’s inability to protect citizens.
Mr Al Kadhimi's remarks came during a visit to the southern province of Dhi Qar, where anti-government protests renewed after activist Sajad Al Iraqi was kidnapped several weeks ago.
“The prime minister called on the security services to deal professionally with the demonstrators, to observe the principles of human rights and respect the freedom of opinion, expression and demonstration,” a statement by his office said.
Since last October, Iraqis have been calling for an overhaul of the political system they consider to be corrupt. Thousands took the streets in the capital but their protests were met with live ammunition and violence.
The protests quickly spread from Baghdad to the southern provinces of Najaf, Dhi Qar, Karbala and Basra.
Violence by the security forces has left nearly 600 people dead and thousands of others with severe injuries.
“October’s martyrs are the pride of our country,” Mr Al Kadhimi said. “They sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country.”
Mr Al Kadhimi, who took office in May, said he rejects any “aggression and encroachment by security forces when carrying out their duties”.
The prime minister met security officials as well as demonstrators during his visit to Dhi Qar.
“The prime minister pledged to work on restoring confidence in security institutions by combating corruption to ensure that stability prevails in Iraq,” his office said.
Anger in Dhi Qar
Mr Al Iraqi and his colleague Bassem Fleih were attacked by gunmen in mid September near Nasiriyah, the provincial capital of Dhi Qar.
Mr Al Fleih was taken to a nearby hospital but Mr Al Iraqi was kidnapped.
The prime minister ordered an investigation team to find Mr Al Iraqi and arrest his abductors but there has been no news of him so far.
Iraqis vented their frustration at the government’s inability to free Mr Al Iraqi on social media. A video was circulated of his mother pleading for his return.
“My heart is shattered into pieces, it’s been more than five days since he was kidnapped. Please do not kill my son, his death will not make a difference, it will trigger hundreds more,” she said.
Protesters are angry at the government’s failure to address or take responsibility for its part in the bloodshed, or to hold militias of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces accountable.
Militia members are believed to be behind some of the killings.
The protest movement last week observed the first anniversary of the uprising with demonstrations in Baghdad and southern cities including Nasiriyah, Najaf and Basra. Activists said they were adding the call for justice for slain, wounded and missing protesters to their demands for political change, an end to corruption, better public services and jobs.