Amnesty warns of 'bloodbath' as political forces close ranks

BAGHDAD: Iraqi protesters clashed with security forces in Baghdad yesterday, following a deadly crackdown that Amnesty International warned could turn into a "bloodbath". Demonstrators across the south fought to maintain anti-government sit-ins, as security forces fired tear gas to try to keep them at bay. Mass rallies calling for an overhaul of the ruling system have rocked Iraq's capital and Shiite-majority south since early October, but political forces closed ranks this week to defend the government as the death toll topped 300.

The consensus seems to have paved the way for a crackdown, and 12 protesters were killed on Saturday when security forces cleared out protest sites, medical sources said. Nine were killed in Baghdad, most struck in the head by tear gas canisters, and three died in Basra. "This is turning into nothing short of a bloodbath," said rights group Amnesty International, calling on authorities to "immediately rein in security forces". "All government promises of reforms or investigations ring hollow while security forces continue to shoot and kill protesters," said its regional director Heba Morayef.

The parliament's human rights committee said it had documented sniper shots and the use of hunting rifles and "sound bombs" - large stun grenades that are planted, not thrown - near protest sites. Despite the violence, demonstrators tried to regroup in the capital's main protest camp of Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Sunday, but crowds were smaller than previously. "Since last night, security forces have been trying to advance into Tahrir to empty it," said one protester, an Iraqi flag draped around his shoulders. A volunteer medic, Azhar Qassem, said doctors would stay to treat any wounded. "We won't pull out," he insisted.

'Climate of fear'
Security forces erected concrete barriers to seal off Tahrir from the nearby Khallani Square, where the air was thick with tear gas. In Basra, around 30 people marched towards their usual protest site outside the port city's provincial headquarters but police kept them hundreds of metres away. Security forces fired tear gas in Nasiriyah to keep back a crowd trying to shut down the education directorate, and blocked school children in Diwaniyah from leaving class to join striking university students. Protesters in Hillah and Kut continued demonstrating, with government offices and schools still shuttered.

The mass rallies, which first erupted on Oct 1, are the largest and deadliest grassroots protests in Iraq in decades. More than 300 people have been killed, according to a toll compiled by AFP in the absence of updated or precise numbers from officials. Yesterday, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission and the parliament's human rights committee complained of a "lack of cooperation" from government bodies meant to provide casualty figures. The government in recent weeks has placed a gag order on any official casualty figures, and medics and activists say they fear being followed or arrested for their involvement in protests.
The United Nations said it was fielding "daily reports of killings, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and intimidation of protesters". Its top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said a "climate of fear" was descending.

Closing rank
Public anger erupted early last month over rampant corruption and lack of jobs but has since spiralled into calls to overthrow the regime, widely blamed for perpetuating graft and clientelism. Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC's second biggest producer, but one in five people live in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, the World Bank says. The government has suggested a series of reforms, from hiring drives and welfare plans to a revamp of the electoral law and constitutional amendments.

But it has resisted calls to overhaul the ruling system, with rival political forces rallying around embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi this week. Abdel Mahdi, 77, came to power last year through a shaky alliance between populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and Hadi Al-Ameri, a leader of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network. When the protests started in October, Sadr threw his weight behind them while the Hashed backed the government.

But a series of meetings led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's foreign operations arm, produced an arrangement to save the government, senior political sources told AFP. Soleimani, who often plays a mediating role during times of crisis in Iraq, met Sadr and persuaded him to return to the fold, said a source present at the meetings. "Those meetings resulted in an agreement that Abdel Mahdi would remain in office," the source said. - AFP