Mike Pence urges restraint against protesters in surprise Iraq visit
US vice president spoke to PM by phone during visit intended to reassure Kurds
US Vice President Mike Pence, making an unannounced visit to Iraq, urged the government to show restraint as Iraqi security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds of protesters Saturday, killing two people in a third day of fierce clashes in central Baghdad, security and hospital officials said.
Two protesters were struck with rubber bullets and died instantly and over 20 others were wounded, security and hospital officials said, in the fighting on Rasheed Street, a famous avenue known for its old crumbling architecture and now littered with rubble from days of violence.
Sixteen people have died and over 100 wounded in the renewed clashes.
Mr Pence spoke by phone with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi after landing at Al Asad Air Base north-west of Baghdad. Officials said the Iraqi leader declined an invitation to meet the vice president at the base after security concerns prevented Mr Pence from travelling to the Iraqi capital.
“We spoke about the unrest that’s been taking place in recent weeks here in Iraq," Mr Pence told reporters. "He assured me that they were working to avoid violence or the kind of oppression we see taking place even as we speak in Iran.
“He pledged to me that they would work to protect and respect peaceful protesters as ... part of the democratic process here in Iraq.”
At least 341 protesters have been killed in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities since October 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to decry corruption and lack of services despite Iraq’s oil wealth. The protesters are calling for the government to quit, political reforms and an end to Iranian interference in Iraq.
Parliament was supposed to meet on Saturday to read reform bills introduced in response to the protesters' demands, but the session was postponed to Monday due to lack of a quorum.
The fighting on Rasheed Street started on Thursday when protesters tried to dismantle a security forces barricade on the street, which leads to Ahrar Bridge, a span over the Tigris River that has been a repeated flashpoint. Security forces responded with barrages of tear gas and live ammunition from behind a concrete barrier.
Protesters have occupied part of three bridges — Ahrar, Jumhuriya and Sinak — in a standoff with security forces. The bridges lead to the fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government.
Mr Pence shared a Thanksgiving meal with US soldiers at the air base before travelling on to Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, to convey US appreciation for Kurdish sacrifices and affirm a message of US support and partnership with Kurdish fighters.
American-led forces and their Syrian Kurdish allies have carried out their biggest joint operation against ISIS in neighbouring Syria since President Donald Trump ordered a pullback of US forces there.
The US-led coalition said on Saturday that hundreds of US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces took part in Friday’s action.
Coalition officials say the operation captured dozens of militants.
The US was widely criticised for President Trump's decision last month to withdraw US forces from the Syria-Turkey border, clearing the way for Turkish forces to attack a Kurdish-led Syrian paramilitary force that was key to the defeat of the extremist group in Syria.
Updated: November 24, 2019 08:53 AM