Iraq clashes: at least 15 die as counter-terror police quell protests

Sun 27 Oct 2019 by https://www.theguardian.com

Elite force told to use ‘all necessary measures’ to end protests in Baghdad and Nasiriyah

A demonstrator runs from tear gas fired by Iraqi security in Baghdad on Saturday night Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

At least 15 more Iraqi protesters were killed on Saturday in clashes with security forces, as thousands took part in nationwide anti-government protests.

Seeking to contain the spiralling violence on Saturday night, the prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, ordered members of the country’s elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) onto the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriya.

They were told to “use all necessary measures” to end the protests, security sources told Reuters.

Around midnight, CTS troops took over checkpoints in neighbourhoods surrounding Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square and began driving protesters out. Security forces firing tear gas had earlier failed to clear the square of demonstrators.

In Nasiriya, CTS soldiers broke up demonstrations by beating and arresting dozens, police and security sources said.

The two cities, where thousands had turned out for a second day of protests, saw the bulk of Saturday’s violence as protesters continued to vent their frustration at political elites they say have failed to improve their lives after years of conflict and economic hardship.

Four people were killed after being struck directly in the head by tear gas canisters fired by security forces in Baghdad, with dozens more wounded.

Four others died in Nasiriya, when a group of protesters stormed the home of a local security official, police said. Guards opened fire after the protesters torched the building, police said. The town in the mainly Shia south has seen especially violent protests in recent weeks and was placed under a 24-hour curfew on Friday.

Seven more people died in Hilla, most when members of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation militia group opened fire on protesters who had gathered near their office.

At least 67 people have been killed since the protests resumed this week, after 149 were killed in a wave of demonstrations earlier this month. The spontaneous, leaderless protests are directed at the political establishment that came to power after the 2003 US-led invasion, which many blame for spiralling corruption and poor public services.

The interior ministry and the military issued statements on Saturday saying some protesters had exploited the rallies to attack government buildings and political party offices.

Iraqi security forces block the road to the Green Zone. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The ministry said some of its members had been killed during violent battles between police and protesters, but did not give a number. The military warned that it would take necessary and legal measures to deal with those it called saboteurs.

Iraqi officials said 12 of those killed on Friday died in a fire they had set when they stormed the office of a government-backed militia in the southern town of Diwaniyah A security official said protesters torched the offices of at least three militias in southern Maysan province.

In Baghdad, Iraqi police had fired teargas, rubber bullets and live shots on Friday to break up protesters who gathered in the central Tahrir Square and later tried to cross the bridge leading to the Green Zone. The protesters returned on Saturday, clashing with security forces throughout the day.

The rallies have mainly been by young, unemployed men who are demanding jobs and better services. Women appeared among the crowd in Baghdad for the first time on Saturday, some of whom handed out water to protesters.

A widow said she had asked her son and daughter to stay at home because she feared for their safety. But the 60-year-old from outside of Baghdad said she came to protest, wanting a better future for her children. Her husband died in Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

“I am not afraid if I die, but I want a better future for my children,” she said. “If these parties and this government stay, they will have no future.”

Iran emerged as a major power broker in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and has close ties to many of its most powerful political parties. It also backs a number of militias that were mobilised in 2014 to battle the Islamic State group.