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Week of protests in Iraq leave 30 people dead

Protesters have been angered by corruption and unemployment.

An anti-government protester in Iraq.
An anti-government protester in Iraq.
Image: AP/PA Images

THOUSANDS OF PROTESTERS clashed with riot police in Iraq’s capital and across the south of the country today. 

This is the third day of rallies, which have left 30 people dead, in the biggest expression of opposition to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

People are protesting in response to a range of issues, including corruption, unemployment and poor services in the country.

Seemingly spontaneous, and with little sign so far of ending, the protests have caused chaos in large parts of Iraq. 

Abdel Mahdi has made few public appearances since protests kicked off, preferring to communicate by written statements even as state media claimed he met with some unnamed protest leaders.

This evening, crowds gathered in the capital of Baghdad with demonstrators promising to march to the capital’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

“We’ll keep going until the government falls,” pledged 22-year-old Ali, an unemployed university graduate. 

“I’ve got nothing but 250 lirain my pocket while government officials have millions,” he told AFP.

Most demonstrators carried the Iraqi tricolour while others brandished flags bearing the name of Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and a revered figure in Shiite Islam.  

Riot police and army troops fired at the ground from automatic weapons mounted on military vehicles, the bullets ricocheting into the crowd.

Wounded protesters piled into small tuk-tuks to reach hospitals.

“Why do the police shoot at Iraqis like them? They suffer like us – they should help and protect us,” said protester Abu Jaafar.

The three days of demonstrations have left 30 people dead, including two police officers, and over 1,000 people have been wounded.  

More than half of those killed in the last three days have been in the southern city of Nasiriyah, where seven protesters were shot dead and dozens wounded on today alone.  

Nearby Amarah has also seen significant bloodshed.  

iraq-protests The protests began earlier this week and have spread across the south of the country. Source: AP/PA Images

Today, two protesters and a police officer were killed in Diwaniyah and one demonstrator was killed in Al-Hilla, also south of Baghdad.

Protests spreading

Protests began on Tuesday in Baghdad but have since spread across the mainly Shiite south, including the provinces of Dhi Qar, Missan, Najaf, Basra, Wasit and Babylon.

Cities have imposed curfews, which have done little to deter protesters. 

The Kurdish northern regions and Sunni western provinces have remained relatively calm.

The complaints from protesters echo those of mass demonstrations in Iraq’s south over a year ago, which were prompted by a water shortage that caused a widespread health crisis. 

Since then, southern provinces have accused the central government of failing to address infrastructural gaps, mainly youth unemployment.

Tensions have been made worse by the closure of government offices in Baghdad and calls by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for “a general strike”.

Sadr was behind major protests in Baghdad in 2016, when his supporters stormed the Green Zone, which is home to some ministries and embassies. 

Many are also anticipating a signal from the country’s top Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which could come in the weekly Friday sermon. 

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With internet access virtually shut off, demonstrators today struggled to communicate with each other or post footage of the latest clashes. 

The UN, EU and UK have all appealed for calm, while rights group Amnesty International slammed the response to protests.

“It is outrageous that Iraqi security forces time and again deal with protesters with such brutality using lethal and unnecessary force,” said Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf. 

She said the internet blackout was a “draconian measure… to silence protests away from cameras and the world’s eyes”.

The protests appear to be largely spontaneous, with virtually no party insignia or slogans spotted.

Instead, demonstrators have brandished Iraqi flags, posters demanding a “real country” and even pictures of an Iraqi general who was recently decommissioned after reported pressure by pro-Iran factions.

Several Iraqis said that they received on Thursday text messages from Abdel Mahdi’s office giving a number for a hotline that protesters could call to air their grievances.

The premier has also infuriated many of his compatriots by blaming the violence on “aggressors who… deliberately created casualties”.

Abdel Mahdi came to power in October 2018 as a consensus candidate, after last year’s mass demonstrations effectively ended his predecessor Haider al-Abadi’s chances at a second term. 

He pledged to reform inefficient institutions, eradicate corruption and fight unemployment – unfulfilled promises that appear to have pushed protesters over the edge this week. 

In particular, anger has boiled over at the staggering level of youth unemployment, which stands at around 25% or double the overall rate, according to the World Bank.

© AFP 2019  with additional reporting by Dominic McGrath

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