Iraq protests: nearly 50 dead as violent clashes restart across the country

Demonstrators turn their fury on government and paramilitary offices in several Iraqi cities

TOPSHOT - Iraqi protesters gather on the capital Baghdad's Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge on October 26, 2019, during an anti-government protest.  Iraqi security forces fired tear gas to clear lingering protesters in Baghdad this morning, after dozens died in a bloody resumption of anti-government rallies to be discussed in parliament. / AFP / -
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At least seven more Iraqi protesters were killed on Saturday in clashes with the security forces in Baghdad and the southern town of Nasiriyah, as thousands took part in nationwide anti-government protests, officials said. The killings brought the death toll in protests that restarted on Friday to 49.

The Iraqi security forces clamped down on protests in Baghdad and across the south of the country on Saturday, a day after 42 died in a bloody resumption of anti-government rallies.

Thousands of protesters tried to reach Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to embassies and government offices. The security forces fired tear gas as protesters tried to remove blast walls from a main bridge leading to the government district. By nightfall, the security forces had chased the protesters back to Tahrir Square, a central roundabout.

Four people were killed when they were struck by tear gas canisters, security and medical officials said.

A few hundred protesters rallied in the capital's Tahrir Square, where police fired tear gas as they tried to cross the Al Jumhuriya Bridge leading to the Green Zone.

“Iraq has a lot money,” said Abbas Yakoud, 19, “But it’s people are poor. The people just sell water and cigarettes. It’s people are dying.”

He carried with him a metal cut-out in the shape of Iraq with trash pasted on it. “This represents the current moment,” he said. “We want to completely change the government.”

Mr Yakoud echoed the demands of many of the protesters, many of whom say that despite living in one a country rich with oil wealth they are unable to find work and lack basic services.

These protests have been the greatest challenge to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government since he took office in 2018. In a speech delivered on the eve of the protests Mr Abdul Mahdi appealed for calm, warning chaos would overtake the country if the government resigned. He said the security forces would allow protesters the right to freely express themselves.

Most of the violence took place in Iraq’s southern provinces. Protesters there burnt the headquarters of political parties and Iraq’s influential Hashd Al Shaabi, a loose umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed militias.

The security forces announced curfews in southern provinces in an attempt to curtail the unrest, but protests were reported in Diwaniyah, Babylon, Najaf and Nasiriyah – the home town of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi.

In Baghdad, the protests began with a festival-like atmosphere, with thousands of demonstrators dancing around speakers hoisted on tuk-tuks and motorcycles.

As night fell, the security forces advanced on the protesters in Tahrir Square in Baghdad firing tear gas and sound bombs driving them back to Tayaran Square.

“Why do they aim at us?,” Ali Jabar Hussein, 26, said. “These are peaceful protests, these are the people’s protests. They aim at our heads, why? Where are you Abdul Mehdi?”

A parliamentary session scheduled for Saturday afternoon to discuss the renewed protests was cancelled after it failed to reach a quorum.

Tensions remained high across several southern cities, with the security forces cutting off roads and imposing strict curfews.

More than a quarter of the deaths on Friday occurred in the southern city of Diwaniyah, where protesters set fire to the headquarters of the powerful Badr organisation, part of the Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitary force. Twelve of the protesters died after becoming trapped in the fire.

The independent Iraqi Human Rights Commission said other deaths were caused by gunshots or tear gas canisters.

Members of Asaeb Ahl Al Haq, another Iran-backed militia, reportedly fired at protesters who marched on its headquarters in Nasiriyah, killing at least nine.

Besides Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah, the home town of Mr Abdul Mahdi, protester deaths were reported in Samawah, Amara and Basra, the largest city in the south.

Nearly 200 people have died and thousands wounded since anti-government protests broke out in Baghdad and across the country's Shiite-majority south on October 1. The demonstrations were largely paused ahead of and during a Shiite religious occasion known as Arbaeen, but resumed on a large scale on Friday.

At least 150 demonstrators were killed in the violent suppression of the first round of protests, drawing international condemnation. A government investigation reported on Tuesday that the high death toll resulted from the use of excessive force, but did not apportion blame.

The protesters, mostly young male Iraqis, are calling for an end to corruption. One in five Iraqis live below the poverty line and youth unemployment is at 25 per cent, according to the World Bank, despite Iraq being Opec's second-largest oil producer.

The security forces used the greatest force while blocking protests from making their way into the Green Zone across Al Jumhuriya Bridge. The National saw footage of armed men taking two protesters from the bridge beating them, putting them into cars and driving away.

“We don’t where they are,” said Mostafa Kemal Aziz, 28, a protester who observed and filmed the arrests from a nearby building. “I saw with my eyes how they attacked them with smoke and sound bombs ... They separated the protesters until the number was small and then began to take the protesters. An armed man had a weapon called a jackhammer that shoots tear gas and sound bombs.”

Mr Aziz says he attended the protests for the future of Iraq. “I see the future generation, I see my children would not have clean water or work. We want the young and old to be able to work.

"These are without leadership. We want a new government; we want a republican system not a parliamentary system. In the parliament they are only looking out for themselves and their party,” he said.