Iraqi protesters fight to continue rallies in face of deadly crackdown

Protesters blocking a road at Khillani Square in central Baghdad yesterday, a day after violent clashes with riot police forces. Activists and rights groups estimate that at least 300 people have been killed since anti-government protests erupted las
Protesters blocking a road at Khillani Square in central Baghdad on Nov 10, 2019, a day after violent clashes with riot police forces. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BAGHDAD • Protesters in the Iraqi capital Baghdad clashed with security forces yesterday, following a deadly crackdown that Amnesty International warned could turn into a "bloodbath".

Demonstrators across the south fought to maintain anti-government sit-ins, as security forces fired tear gas to keep them at bay.

Mass rallies seeking an overhaul of the ruling system have rocked Iraq's capital and the Shi'ite-majority south since early October, but political forces closed ranks last week to defend the government as the death toll topped 300.

The consensus seems to have paved the way for a crackdown, and 12 protesters were killed last Saturday when security forces cleared out protest sites, medical sources said. Nine were killed in Baghdad, most struck in the head by tear gas canisters, and three died in Basra.

"This is turning into nothing short of a bloodbath," said rights group Amnesty International, calling on the authorities to "immediately rein in security forces". Its regional director Heba Morayef said: "All government promises of reforms or investigations ring hollow while security forces continue to shoot and kill protesters."

Parliament's human rights committee said it had documented sniper shots and the use of hunting rifles and "sound bombs" - large stun grenades that are planted, not thrown - near protest sites.

Despite the violence, protesters tried to regroup in the capital's main protest camp of Tahrir (Liberation) Square yesterday, but crowds were smaller than before.

Security forces erected concrete barriers to seal off Tahrir from the nearby Khillani Square, where the air was thick with tear gas.

In Basra, about 30 people tried to reach their usual protest site outside the port city's provincial headquarters but police kept them hundreds of metres away.

Security forces fired tear gas in Nasiriyah to keep back a crowd trying to shut down the education directorate, and blocked school children in Diwaniyah from joining striking university students. Protesters in Hillah and Kut continued demonstrating, with government offices and schools still shuttered.

The mass rallies are the largest and deadliest grassroots protests in Iraq in decades. More than 300 people have been killed, according to a toll compiled by AFP.

Yesterday, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission and Parliament's human rights committee complained of a "lack of cooperation" from government bodies meant to provide casualty figures.

And the United Nations said it was fielding "daily reports of killings, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and intimidation of protesters".

Public anger erupted early last month over rampant corruption and lack of jobs but has since spiralled into calls to overthrow the regime, widely blamed for perpetuating graft and clientelism.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2019, with the headline 'Iraqi protesters fight to continue rallies in face of deadly crackdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe