Iraq: security forces use tear gas against protesters as second wave of demonstrations ignites

Thousands of Iraqis gather in Iraqi capital's Tahrir Square to protest against the system

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Dozens of Iraqis were wounded on Sunday as clashes erupted between security forces and protesters who gathered in Baghdad to revive a protest movement that ousted the previous government.

Security forces fired water cannon and tear gas at the demonstrators to prevent them from entering Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where the country’s parliament and ministry buildings are located.

The Interior Ministry said that at least 37 protesters and 17 security personnel were wounded after security forces fired tear gas.

The revival of the protests marks the first anniversary of mass demonstrations staged a day after at least 50 protesters were killed or wounded by security forces.

The unrest began on October 1 last year, when thousands of mostly young Iraqis took to the streets to vent their anger at poor public services, high unemployment and foreign interference.

The response of state security forces was brutal and included the use of live ammunition.

At least 600 people have died since the protests began, while thousands have been wounded.

"It has become clear to us that changing the regime is not easy, given the situation inside Iraq and in the region," activist Hashim Al Jabouri told The National.

In addition to their earlier demands, the protesters called for those responsible for the violence to be put on trial.

“We are focusing on bringing the killers of the protesters to justice, reforms to the election law and to prepare a safe environment for the coming elections,” Mr Al Jabouri said.

People from all over the country, especially from southern provinces such as Basra and Dhi Qar, headed towards Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Saturday evening to reignite the biggest movement since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in the US-led invasion in 2003.

Security forces spokesman Yehia Rasool said a group of infiltrators attacked security forces and wounded at least 32 security personnel.

Inas Jabbar, a protester from Baghdad, told The National that "the feelings that pushed us to come out last year will be relived today. We will not stop until our demands are met."

Although the demonstrations have yet to bring about significant reforms for the country’s youth, Ms Jabbar said the movement showed the public what it meant to be a nation and how it felt to be part of a society.

“We were able to understand the importance of having a voice and to demand a better future, especially against those who do not want us to live in peace and security,” she said.

The protests forced Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign as prime minister in November, but the protesters were not satisfied and demanded an overhaul of the entire political system.

“There will be a united protest. This day will be remembered for the tightening of our demands for which thousands took the streets last year,” Ms Jabbar said.

“None of our requests have been met until now – minimal changes have been made.”

Populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr encouraged the use of violence against protesters gathering in the capital, calling them “infiltrators”.

Mr Al Sadr, who has a huge number of followers, accused the protesters of being backed by “foreign forces” and urged the government to prevent vandalism by using force.

But Ms Jabbar said protesters were expected to try to cross a bridge and enter the Green Zone.

University student Ahmed Ali, 22, said Iraqis would relive “last year’s atrocities”.

"It will commemorate the blood that was lost," he told The National at Tahrir Square.

“We have gathered pictures of all the martyrs that were killed. They are the reason why the protests have kicked off again and the reason why it has continued this long.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi called on the public to gather at 5pm Baghdad time to pay respect to those killed during last year’s demonstrations.

Mr Al Kadhimi took office in May after months of political deadlock during which two candidates for the top post failed to gather enough support among the country’s political elites.

The Iraqi leader has presented himself as a champion of the protesters’ demands and appointed long-time activists as advisers.

He promised that early elections, a key demand of the protesters, would be held next June.

The protesters, who are mostly under the age of 30 and represent a cross section of Iraqi society, have faced intimidation for being part of the movement.

“We have faced many threats, but that has not stopped us from going out and ensuring that our voices are heard ... changes can and will be made,” Mr Ali said.

A combination of protester fatigue and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic caused the protests to lose momentum earlier this year.