Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

Thousands of Iraqis defy government crackdown in Baghdad's Tahrir Square

Earlier on Sunday, populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr withdrew his support for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi

Thousands of Iraqi protesters stood defiantly in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Sunday to demand civil rights, defying a crackdown that killed dozens of people over the weekend and an overnight raid by authorities trying to stop them.

Protesters erected barricades on a bridge leading to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, while security forces lobbed tear gas canisters at them. Medical sources told Reuters that 77 people had been injured.

Earlier on Sunday, populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr withdrew his support for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, accusing him of failing to meet protesters' demands.

Clashes between security forces and protesters have killed at least 63 people and injured 2,592 in the past two days, an official with Iraq’s Human Rights Commission told The National on Sunday.

Despite their country being a major global centre for oil, many Iraqis live in poverty and have limited access to clean water, electricity, health care and education.

Protesters blame the country's political elite for this and say it is subservient to regional allies in a way that does not consider most of Iraq's people.

Thousands also gathered on Sunday in the three southern cities of Nasiriya, Hilla and Kerbala.

Members of the Saeroon bloc of MPs demanded the government resign and began a protest at Parliament.

"We are on our way now to Parliament for the sit-in until the enactment of all reforms the Iraqi people are demanding,” MP Badr Al Zayadi said.

The bloc, Iraq's largest, is tied to Mr Al Sadr, the cleric who also called for early elections to be supervised by the UN.

He was known to be the kingmaker of the current government after Saeroon secured a majority of seats in May's elections.

Friday witnessed the return of the protest movement that rocked the country this month.

On the first day of the protests Mohamed Al Shafajy approached The National with blood dripping from hands after he witnessed the killing of a protester on the Jumhuriya bridge.

“The blood came from one of the martyrs whose life was cut by the order of the prime minister," Mr Al Shafajy said.

"They have Iranian militias killing Iraqi people. These are the people’s protests, they don’t belong to any party or any power."

Abdul Rahman Berzanji, a wounded demonstrator in Baghdad, said: “In his last speech the prime minister said he would not target the protesters.

"I was hit by live bullets in the head and foot during the last two days. We are all here in Tahrir Square standing against corruption."

The government must provide protection and security for people to safely demonstrate and to separate those who are trying to infiltrate the movement, Ali Al Bayati, a member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, told The National.

“The government must establish direct dialogue with representatives of the protests to meet their requests,” Mr Al Bayati said.

Protesters are angry with the authorities for failing to end their suffering and for not protecting them during the demonstrations, he said.

“More than 22 per cent of Iraqis live under the poverty line and Iraqi youth are 60 per cent of the population,” Mr Al Bayati said.

Hundreds of university students and women took the streets of Baghdad on Sunday to join the protest movement.

Sunday's protests saw a high number of women and young girls still in school.

Tara Ali, 19, who attends the Atba bin Gazwan high school in Al Salhiah neighbourhood, said she arranged on Instagram a sit-in with her classmates.

Nearly 100 students gathered in front of the gate of her high school in solidarity with the protests.

“I’m fighting for the future of myself, my future children and my younger sister,” Ms Ali said.

She attended the protests with her younger sister Rose and their mother to help distribute food and fizzy drinks to the protesters.

“Women have a voice,” Ms Ali said. "We can help with everything we bring to the protesters.”

Mr Abdul Mahdi used Iraq's elite counter-terrorism forces to protect state buildings around Baghdad from "undisciplined elements taking advantage of security forces being busy with protecting protests and protesters", the government said.

Updated: October 28, 2019 03:12 PM

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