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Iraq reignites after ‘deadline’ expires and protesters killed

Protesters have once again turned out en masse in recent days across southern and central Iraq and tensions are flaring shortly after protesters were killed trying to push toward the Iranian Embassy on a Baghdad bridge Jan. 17.
An Iraqi demonstrator pulls a burning tire during ongoing anti-government protests in Basra, Iraq January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani - RC2LJE9YYT3G

BAGHDAD — Anti-government protests have once again heated up across the country, with reports of live ammunition being used by security forces after protesters blocked a highway bridge in the capital Jan. 19 and again Jan. 20 near the main protest square in the capital, where several protesters were killed.

Dozens had been injured in Baghdad and elsewhere by the end of the day Jan. 20 after a seven-day deadline issued by protesters in Nasiriyah expired and more were killed the following day.

There were also reports of at least 14 security forces injured on Jan. 20, including a brigade commander of the federal police whose leg was broken while he was allegedly protecting peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square. Police have for months been at the entrance to the square, where those entering are subject to body searches to prevent the infiltration of weapons.

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission said Tuesday that 4 protestors had been killed in Baghdad over the previous two days and that 85 had been injured. Some 36 were arrested in the province. More deaths were reported in other provinces, including 2 in Karbala.

The protesters in Nasiriyah had given the government and parliament until Jan. 20 to respond to their demands or face an escalation of civil disobedience and the blocking of roads in the southern city known for its rebellious tendencies. 

When Al-Monitor reported from Nasiriyah in November 2019, this reporter spent an evening at the home of a government employee and activist in his 50s. He had been in hiding for weeks after vocally supporting the protest movement. His son was subsequently severely injured in the protests.

The activist told Al-Monitor Jan. 19 that he was still in hiding and that protesters planned to block “all major roads, including to Baghdad,” if demands were not met by the deadline.

Meanwhile, the headquarters of another pro-Iran armed group was set ablaze in Najaf, government offices have been welded shut, students are in the streets en masse and other acts of civil disobedience are underway across much of south and central Iraq.

Protests began escalating after a windy but sunny Jan. 17 in the Iraqi capital, when security forces resumed shooting tear gas canisters at what they called “saboteurs” who had allegedly pushed forward on one of the three bridges occupied by anti-government protesters for the past three months. By the end of the night, two were reported dead.

The tear gas canisters being used by Iraqi forces over the past three months are from Serbia and Iran and are up to 10 times heavier than standard ones and not meant to be fired directly at people. One of the two victims was reportedly killed when a tear gas canister lodged in his head, the other by a canister that hit him in the chest.

One of the protesters Al-Monitor had met previously on the bridge sent a WhatsApp message saying the protesters “had advanced” against anti-riot security forces stationed at a barrier on the bridge on the night of Jan. 17.

The bridge crosses to the Iranian Embassy and the large Al-Mansour Melia Hotel, where Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen, linked to Hezbollah, often broadcasts from.

It is the middle one of the three occupied by the protesters, who have accused Iran-linked armed groups — many of which incorporated into the official Iraqi government forces after they took part in the war against the Islamic State — of being behind kidnappings and killings of protesters, media workers and activists since the anti-government protests began Oct. 1, 2019.

Though protesters started out demanding better services, more jobs and a change in the government, slogans against Iranian involvement in the country have become frequent. In recent weeks, protesters have repeatedly lamented that Iran-US tensions being played out in Iraq were diverting attention from their demands and movement.

Many have noted that Iraqi security forces continue to protect the Iranian Embassy from anti-government protesters but failed to protect the US Embassy Dec. 31, 2019, when pro-Iran armed groups attempted to storm it.

Baghdad Operations Command had said Jan. 18 that “our security forces tasked with protecting demonstrators in the Sinak Bridge, Khilani and Wathba areas and their surroundings remain committed to their duties to protect the public there, but … for the second day in a row, there are groups approaching the barrier separating protesters and security forces” and throwing Molotov cocktails and other objects at the forces, adding it called on “peaceful demonstrators to cooperate to prevent violent groups” from provoking a reaction.

It was in the Sinak “garage," a multistory parking lot on the protesters’ side of the bridge by the same name, that at least 20 people were killed by unidentified men wielding a variety of weapons Dec. 6, 2019. Protesters have accused groups linked to Iran of being behind the killings. Wathba Square, further down the main road leading north from Tahrir Square, is instead where a teenager was lynched Dec. 12, 2019.

Al-Monitor had witnessed dozens of youths at a barrier near Ahrar Bridge, next to Wathba Square, breaking rocks and throwing them at security forces Jan. 10 near where one man had reportedly been killed two days prior.

Basra-native Sajjad, 18, told Al-Monitor in an interview near the Ahrar Bridge that he had been in Baghdad for almost three months because “there were protests in Basra but not anymore, not really. The tribes got involved. They don’t want them there.”

Unidentified individuals assassinated well-known journalist Ahmed Abdel Samad and his cameraman Safaa Ghali from Dijlah TV. Samad had posted a video on his Facebook account a few hours before he was killed in which he criticized the fact that Iraqi security forces had arrested protesters in Basra but had not done so with those who attacked the US Embassy.

A prime method of escalating the protests to draw attention to demands has become that of burning tires and blocking roads, especially in southern Iraq but also in Baghdad in recent days.

The spokesman for the commander in chief of the armed forces, Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, said Jan. 20 that these actions would not be considered a valid method of protest and that the National Security Council had authorized the arrest of those who block roads, close government departments and burn tires.

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