Outrage as prime minister blames violence on 'aggressors'

BAGHDAD: Popular protests multiplied across Iraq yesterday as demonstrators braved live fire and tear gas from security forces in rallies that have left seven dead in the past 24 hours. The demonstrations are the first major challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago this month and who controversially blamed the violence on "aggressors" among the protesters. Since they began Tuesday in Baghdad the protests have spread to other cities in the country's south, with disparate crowds railing against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment.

Yesterday, a police officer and three protesters were shot dead and five were wounded in the southern city of Nasiriyah, a provincial health official told AFP, bringing the death toll in two days of violent protests to seven. In Baghdad yesterday, riot police attempted to disperse crowds in a half-dozen neighbourhoods using tear gas and firing live rounds into the air. Protesters regrouped and began heading towards the capital's iconic Tahrir Square for the second day, but police had sealed off the area, several nearby roads and the adjacent Jumhuriya bridge.

Security forces feared protesters would cross the Tigris river into the Green Zone, which hosts government buildings and embassies and was walled-off until just a few months ago. In the southern neighborhood of Zaafaraniya, protesters were burning tyres on streets lined with police vehicles. "I came out today in support of my brothers in Tahrir Square," said Abdallah Walid, 27. "We want jobs and better public services. We've been demanding them for years and the government has never responded," he said.

Journalists covering protests in central Baghdad said security forces had assaulted them and detained one of their colleagues. "No state would attack its own people like this. We're being peaceful, but they fired," said unemployed graduate Mohammad Jubury in the nearby Al-Shaab district. Some 60 people were wounded across Baghdad yesterday, including nine from bullet wounds and the rest from tear gas inhalation, medical sources said.

In addition to Baghdad and Nasiriyah, crowds also gathered in the holy city of Najaf and the flashpoint southern city of Basra, which was rocked by protests last year. Security forces used live rounds to break up the Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Najaf protests, much like the previous evening. Even after Tuesday's Baghdad protest had been broken up, heavy gunfire could be heard well into the night, including in the Sadr City district, where a funeral was held for the protester killed in the capital.
The other demonstrator killed in the capital was wounded Tuesday and succumbed to his injuries yesterday. It was not clear if bullets were fired directly at protesters or into the air. Tuesday's bloodshed drew condemnation from President Barham Saleh, who urged "restraint and the respect for the law". "Peaceful protest is a constitutional right granted to citizens," he said. The UN's top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed "grave concern" yesterday, saying she "deeply regrets the casualties". She urged authorities to "exercise restraint in their handling of the protests".

Unusually for Iraq, no political faction had explicitly called for Tuesday's protest, which appeared to be largely spontaneous. The liberal newspaper Al-Bayina Al-Jadida said the protests were, "for the first time without flag, without poster or party slogan". They follow months of simmering frustration with Abdel Mahdi over a perceived lack of progress on corruption, unemployment or services. Routine power cuts leave consumers without mains electricity for up to 20 hours a day and, according to the World Bank, youth unemployment runs at around 25 percent, or double the adult rate.

Protests over the same issues engulfed the southern city of Basra last summer and effectively ended Abdel Mahdi's predecessor Haider Al-Abadi's chances of a second term. Abdel Mahdi now faces a similar challenge. He convened his national security council for an emergency meeting yesterday, after paying tribute to the security forces and blaming the violence on "aggressors who… deliberately created casualties".

Interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan told state media on Tuesday that "infiltrators were behind the violent acts in the protests today". Their statements drew widespread online criticism, as some other politicians had thrown their weight behind the protesters. Nationalist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr called for a "fair investigation" into the events in Tahrir Square. Parliament, too, has ordered a probe into the violence and its human rights committee criticized security forces for their "suppression" of the demonstrations. - AFP