Anti-Government Protests Escalate in southern Iraq—at Least Five Killed
Iraqi Defense Minister declares state of emergency, and calls on Iraqi security forces to be "on high alert."
Demonstrations began on Tuesday October 1, loosely organized on social media and began with a peaceful gathering of some 1,000 people, mainly university students, who marched into Baghdad's central Tahrir Square. However, things took a turn for the worse when police used water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas to disperse the small crowds. Reports emerged of live ammunition being used by police in the cities of Baghdad and Najaf, rather than deterring protesters, caused larger turnout as numbers swelled to several thousand and the protests spread to other cities in southern Iraq.
Iraq’s government blames “groups of riot inciters” as being responsible for the violence on the streets of Baghdad, while saying that they uphold the right of Iraqis to peacefully protest.
At the time of publication, Iraqi authorities have imposed a curfew in the cities of Nasiriyah, Amara and Hilla in the south of the country, as well as cutting internet access across the entire southern region. While reports of civilian casualties vary, many are reporting between 5 and 10 deaths and over 200 injuries. This is the worst civil violence seen in years in Iraq’s capital.
It is possible this round of protests had their origins in an incident where Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, a popular army commander and head of the Counter Terrorism Service, was dismissed last Friday September 27, 2019. He is regarded by many Iraqis to be a military giant after defeating the Islamic State in the nine-month siege of Mosul that ended in 2017. The general public’s displeasure at this decision and subsequent protests put Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi under considerable pressure and conceivably led to him making the rash decision to use undue force with protesters of the last few days. Perhaps the Prime Minister was also thinking of his predecessor Haider al-Abadi, whose inability to cope with the protests in Basra last year lost him his office.
In addition to the dismissal of this popular general by the nationalist Prime Minister, the same grievances from protests past—rampant corruption in the government, unemployment, inability to provide basic services, and Iranian interventionism, to name a few—have become the rallying point for the protesters. According to the World Bank, the country has a high youth unemployment of around 25%. Iraq ranks as the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. The state of Iran also has had considerable influence in Iraq since sending in the IRGC and Shia Militias to fight the Islamic State, but now is intent on keeping a Shia-led government in power in Iraq, and is sending in reinforcements to aid police and security forces in controlling the protests.
Tweet below shows protesters burning the provincial building in the province of Maysan.
Photo: Protesters in Baghdad are repelled by water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas. (Xinhua and K. Dawood, Picture Alliance).