Iraqi troops use tear gas canisters as bullets, protesters say

Baghdad demonstrators accuse security forces of excessive force

Demonstrators run away from tear gas during a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Baghdad, Iraq October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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Iraqi high school pupil Amir Khadem watched in horror as a man toppled from his motorbike on to the ground, surrounded by a cloud of tear gas.

Blood spurted from the man’s head, drenching the ground as protesters took cover around him.

“This just happened,” said Amir, 17, showing a video of the moment immediately after the man was hit in the head with a tear gas canister.

“They did this on purpose. I saw this, it was on purpose. He died.”

Protesters in Baghdad and beyond claim security troops have aimed at protesters with tear gas canisters.

While the first round of Iraq’s protests were marked by live bullets, in the most recent there has been a large number of deaths from canisters striking those on the streets.

Eight protesters were killed when struck in the head by the canisters the day the protests resumed on October 25, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said.

“The main marked difference we saw in protests in Baghdad as opposed to ones earlier in the month is that clearly an order was given not to open live fire on the crowds,”  said Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Seemingly they have replaced live fire with tear gas canisters. What I cannot tell is the extent to which them firing gas canisters at people instead of above them is purposeful or incompetence."

Protesters and medics said they had seen severe injuries and in some cases deaths caused by the canisters and stun grenades.

One protester, Mohamed Al Khafajy, his hands still covered in another person's blood, told The National he had seen a protester killed in front of him with a tear gas canister.

“The blood came from one who fell, who was targeted by the security forces," Mr Al Khafajy said. "They kill the Iraqi people. They now are hitting people with tear gas."

Mayad Hasan, 30, held up a bandaged hand.

“I was hit here on my hand by a stun grenade,” Mr Hasan said. “They are targeting us. I was near the concrete barriers on the bridge.”

Ms Wille said the many stories from those protesters hit by canisters and stun grenades were cause for concern.

"Given the amount of people in the past few days who’ve had tear gas canisters hit them in the head, I find it hard to believe that all of those instances are simply bad trainingm given that what we saw in the beginning of the month was that people were being shot at in the head,” she said.

“What I worry is that there a chance security forces are actually purposefully shooting at people in the head with tear gas canisters, essentially using them in lieu of live fire.

Medic Akeel Hani treats a protester injured on the Jumhuriya Bridge. Pesha Magid

"So they’re not trying to use tear gas as a method of dispersal, they’re trying to use it instead as something akin to a bullet.”

Most injuries and deaths have occurred on Baghdad’s Jumhuriya bridge, which leads from Tahrir Square to the Green Zone.

There the security forces have erected concrete T-Walls to prevent protesters from storming the area, which is home to the Iraqi Parliament.

Protesters say that troops shelter behind the walls while aiming indiscriminately at those who try to approach.

Ms Wille says she believes that the forces guarding the bridge may be a mix of anti-riot police and troops commissioned to protect the Green Zone.

“They are behind the T-Walls on the bridge, they stay behind the walls and aim at the protesters,” said Akeel Hani, 27, who usually works as a medic in the Baghdad Children’s Hospital, but left to work to volunteer at the protests.

"They don’t where it lands. It could land on the tent, on the people, they don’t know. What’s important to them is that they hit the protesters."

In the first days of the protests, Mr Hani went to the bridge to try to treat the wounded. Since then, he and a group of volunteer doctors have set up a tent in Tahrir Square.

“There are injuries to the head, the back and the legs," he said. "I had to give stitches to two people on their heads. Yesterday there were two in one day."

Soran Khatib, a doctor volunteering with Mr Hani, said most injuries came from tear gas inhalation

“There have been injuries from stun grenades and from tear canisters," Dr Khatib said.

"With tear gas, they should aim it far away. When they aim it close you get direct injuries. Yesterday we had four cases where tear gas canisters struck the bodies of the injured.

“We’ve seen serious and deep injuries on the legs and the backs of protesters."

Protester Farhan Mohamed, 24, held up a handful of tear gas canisters.

"We want human rights,” he said. “This is shameful. They are hitting our mothers and our sisters here in the protests.

"Why are you attacking people? Why?”