Six killed in Iraq as protests escalate over lack of reform

UN calls for calm as it urges the government to meet public demands

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Six Iraqis including two police officers were killed and scores were wounded on Monday as Iraqi security forces clashed with anti-government demonstrators, with the UN calling for calm.

In the past 24 hours, two protesters were killed in Baghdad, one in Karbala and another in Basra, while 14 security troops were injured, an official from the Independent High Commission for Human Rights told The National.

For three months, Iraqis have been calling for an overhaul of the political system they consider to be corrupt.

On January 13, protesters gave the government a week to meet their demands for sweeping political reforms, or the demonstrations would intensify.

In Baghdad, dozens of protesters were wounded after treoops used bullets and tear gas, prompting road closures.

This picture taken on January 20, 2020 shows a view of clashes between Iraqi security forces (background) and anti-government protesters (foreground) as tuktuks (motorised rickshaws) are present on the scene to transport the injured, at Tayaran Square, east of Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital Baghdad.  / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters as tuk-tuks move in to carry away the injured, at Tayaran Square in central Baghdad. AFP

The UN called for the demonstrations to remain peaceful and urged authorities to push for reform, and expressed concern about continuing human rights breaches.

At least 600 people have been killed and thousands wounded since the protest movement began in early October.

“The killing and injury of peaceful protesters, combined with long years of undelivered promises, have resulted in a major crisis of confidence,” said the UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

Protests also erupted in the southern provinces of Najaf, Dhi Qar, Karbala and Basra on Monday morning.

“Any steps taken so far to address the people’s concerns will remain hollow if they are not completed," Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said.

"Domestic unity, cohesion and determination are urgently necessary to build resilience against narrow partisan interests, foreign interference and/or criminal elements that actively seek to hinder Iraq’s stability."

In the southern oil city of Basra, two policemen were struck and killed by a civilian car during the protests, Reuters reported.

The driver was trying to avoid the scene of clashes when he drove into the two officers, sources said.

At least six protesters were wounded when an unknown gunmen fired at them from a speeding car, AP reported.

In other cities such as Nassiriya, Karbala and Amara, hundreds of protesters burned tyres and blocked their main roads.

At least nine arrests were made after the National Security Council gave the all clear to security forces to arrest protesters who were seen blocking main thoroughfares and roundabouts.

Protesters believe that Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has not fulfilled key promises, including naming a new government acceptable to Iraqis.

The violence is the latest since protests in Iraq reignited last week after a brief lull amid soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran following a US drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad this month.

A statement from the Baghdad Operations Command said fourteen officers were wounded by a group of rock-throwing “inciters of violence” while trying to secure the entrance to Tahrir Square, the centre of the protest movement.

“Despite these actions our forces continued to exercise restraint and follow up on the security duties assigned to them,” the statement said.

Security forces on Sunday fired tear gas to disperse crowds in Tayaran Square and nearby Sinak Bridge, which leads towards the fortified Green Zone that is home to diplomatic missions and government buildings. Dozens of people were wounded.

An injured protester receives first aid during clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters in central Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and live rounds on Monday wounding over a dozen protesters, medical and security officials said, in continuing violence as anti-government demonstrators make a push to revive their movement in Baghdad and the southern provinces. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
An injured protester is carried away during the clashes. AP Photo

The development comes as Parliament postponed a vital session on Sunday due to lack of quorum.

Officials were supposed to discuss the replacement of Mr Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in late November, for his lack of response to meet protesters demands.

“Two months after the prime minister announced his resignation, political leaders remain unable to agree on the way forward,” the UN mission to Iraq said.

The next parliamentary session is expected to be held on Wednesday.