Protesters flood Iraq streets anew as death toll nears 100

Updated October 05, 2019

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Iraqi protesters take part in a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad's central Khellani Square on Friday. — AFP
Iraqi protesters take part in a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad's central Khellani Square on Friday. — AFP

Renewed protests took place under live fire in Iraq's capital and the country's south Saturday as the government struggled to agree a response to days of rallies that have left nearly 100 dead.

The largely spontaneous gatherings of demonstrators — whose demands have evolved since they began on Tuesday from employment and better services to fundamental government change -- have swelled despite an internet blackout and overtures by the country's elite.

Hours after a curfew in Baghdad was lifted on Saturday morning, dozens of protesters rallied around the oil ministry in the capital, facing live rounds fired in their direction, an AFP photographer said.

Security forces broke up the main protest outside the oil ministry into smaller isolated groups, and conducted house-to-house searches.

Five protesters were killed on Saturday in Baghdad raising the death toll since Tuesday to 99, the according to parliament's human rights commission.

Nearly 4,000 people have been wounded since the protests began in Baghdad and spread to cities across the south, it added.

The commission said that most of those who died fell in Baghdad while 250 other people were treated in the capital for sniper wounds.

“We demand clarification from the Iraqi government on those wounded in Baghdad by sniper fire, which is ongoing today,” the commission said.

Thousands also descended on Saturday on the governorate buildings in the southern cities of Diwaniyah — where gunfire was unleashed into the air — and in Nasiriyah, AFP correspondents said.

Parliament had been due to meet at 1pm (1000 GMT) but could not reach quorum, after firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc of 54 lawmakers and other factions boycotted the session.

The former militia leader threw his weight behind the demonstrations on Friday with a call for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Sadr's movement has the power and organisation to bring large numbers of supporters onto the streets, but at the risk of alienating many of those whose protests in recent days have been based on rejecting all of Iraq's feuding political factions.

'We don't want parties'

Parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi had extended a hand to protesters saying “Your voice is being heard”, and he had been hoping to discuss job creation and social welfare schemes with lawmakers in the session.

But the mainly young, male protesters have insisted their movement is not linked to any party or religious establishment and have scoffed at the recent overtures by politicians.

“These men don't represent us. We don't want parties anymore. We don't want anyone to speak in our name,” said one protester late Friday.

Abu Salah, a 70-year-old resident of Baghdad with wispy white hair and a matching beard, said the streets would be full until Iraqis saw real change.

“If living conditions don't improve, the protests will come back even worse,” he told AFP.

Iraq has a population of just under 40 million people, and is currently the fifth-largest oil producer and exporter worldwide, and the second-largest OPEC producer.

Youth unemployment stands at 25 per cent, twice the overall rate, according to the World Bank which adds that an estimated 22.5pc of the population was living in poverty in 2014.

The protests have presented the biggest challenge yet to the Iraqi premier, who came to power a year ago as a consensus candidate promising reforms but whose response to protesters has been seen as tepid.

“Abdel Mahdi should have come forward with decisive changes, like the sacking of leading politicians accused of corruption,” said Iraqi analyst Sarmad al-Bayati.

Political and religious rifts run deep in Iraq, and protests are typically called for by party or sect — making the last five days exceptional, said Fanar Haddad an expert at Singapore University's Middle East Institute.

“This is the first time we hear people saying they want the downfall of the regime,” Haddad said.

'No magic solutions'

Sadr, a former militia leader turned nationalist politician, demanded on Friday that the government resign to clear the way for a fresh election supervised by the United Nations.

His bloc is the largest in parliament, and his intervention sets the scene for a possible showdown with the speaker, who has made his own bid to make political capital out of the protests.

Halbusi sought to allay protesters Saturday by announcing in a news conference a long list of promised reforms over employment and social welfare but it was not clear he would succeed in appeasing them.

The premier on Friday said “there are no magic solutions” to rid the country of corruption and unemployment after decades of conflict.

Iraq's Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani used his weekly Friday prayer sermon to urge authorities to heed the demands of demonstrators, warning the protests could escalate unless clear steps are taken immediately.