Rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone after deadly protest

Five protesters and two policemen were killed in clashes after demonstrators tried to break through a cordon around the Green Zone and security forces opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Protesters run from tear gas fired by security forces after supporters of the cleric Muqtada Al Sadr tried to approach the heavily fortified Green Zone during a protest at Tahrir Square in Baghdad on February 11, 2017. Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud / Reuters
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Baghdad // Several rockets fired from inside Baghdad on Saturday struck the capital’s Green Zone hours after deadly clashes in the area between police and protesters demanding electoral reforms.

“Several Katyusha rockets fired from the Baladiyat and Palestine Street areas landed in the Green Zone,” the Joint Operations Command said.

The two neighbourhoods are in northern Baghdad, on the other side of the Tigris River that runs through the city.

There were no immediate reports of any injuries.

Hours earler seven people were killed when protesters tried to force their way through a security cordon to reach the Green Zone, a fortified area that houses most of Iraq’s key institutions and main embassies.

Police fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets at the crowd, most of them supporters of the cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.

“There were seven dead as a result of the violence. Two of them are from the security forces and the other five are protesters,” a police colonel said.

He said more than 200 were hurt in the chaos. Most were protesters suffering from tear gas inhalation, but at least 11 had more serious injuries caused by bullets and tear-gas canisters.

The violence was the deadliest to break out at a protest since a wave of demonstrations over poor public services and political corruption and nepotism began in 2015.

Protesters had at first gathered peacefully on Tahrir Square to demand a change in the electoral law and the replacement of the electoral commission ahead of provincial polls due in September.

“The demonstrators tried to cross Jumhuriya bridge, the security forces fired tear gas to stop them but they insisted,” a senior police official said.

Sadr supporters broke into Green Zone twice last year, storming the prime minister’s office and the parliament building.

The protest movement was halted after the launch in October of Iraq’s largest military operation in years to retake the city of Mosul from ISIL.

However, last month’s announcement that elections would take place in September has brought the political agenda back to the fore, and Mr Al Sadr’s movement has vowed to increase the pressure again.

The Najaf-based cleric gave demonstrators his approval to march on the government district in a statement issued on Saturday.

“If you want to approach the gates of the Green Zone to affirm your demands and make them heard to those on the other side of the fence ... you can,” he said.

He encouraged the protesters to remain there until sunset but warned them against attempting to break into the zone.

The protesters met fierce resistance from the security forces and never made it across the Tigris River that runs between Tahrir Square and the Green Zone.

But Mr Al Sadr, who once led a rebellion against US occupation but has more recently spearheaded an anti-corruption protest movement, urged prime minister Haider Al Abadi not to turn a deaf ear.

“I urge him to deliver those reforms immediately, listen to the voice of the people and remove the corrupt,” the statement said.

He later appealed for restraint and the demonstrators dispersed.

Mr Al Abadi said the violence would be investigated and those responsible for it prosecuted.

The electoral commission called for protection from the premier’s office and the international community.

A smaller group of protesters had demonstrated near the Green Zone on Wednesday, while hundreds also gathered in several southern cities on Friday.

Their two main demands are for the members of the electoral commission to be replaced on the grounds that they are all affiliated to political parties and that the body supervising nationwide ballots was therefore anything but independent.

They also want the electoral law to be amended to give wider representation to smaller parties in the country’s elected bodies.

Sinan Al Azzawi, a popular Iraqi actor, was among those who addressed the protest before the violence broke out.

Politicians “are profiteers and their only loyalty is to the countries they used to live in but not to Iraq”, he said, referring to the Saddam-era exile of many of the country’s current leaders.

“Those politicians, they created an electoral commission based on sectarian quotas. It has nine commissioners who belong to political entities. It’s not independent,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse