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Sunday 20 August 2017

Rockets hit Baghdad's Green Zone after protests turn violent

Protesters run from tear gas fired by security forces during protests for followers of Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr in Tahrir square, Baghdad (AP/Karim Kadim)
Protesters run from tear gas fired by security forces during protests for followers of Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr in Tahrir square, Baghdad (AP/Karim Kadim)

Two rockets have landed in Baghdad's Green Zone following clashes at anti-government protests that left five people dead, according to Iraqi officials.

The rocket attack caused no casualties as the munitions landed on the parade grounds in the centre of the highly fortified compound that is home to Iraq's government and most foreign embassies.

It was not immediately clear who fired the projectiles.

Saturday's protests were called for by influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and clashes that erupted as crowds pushed towards the Green Zone left two policemen and three protesters dead, according to police and hospital officials.

The officials said six other policemen were injured along with dozens of protesters.

The violent outbreak prompted the government to call for a "full investigation".

The demonstrators loyal to Mr al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir square to demand an overhaul of the commission overseeing local elections scheduled for this year.

Mr al-Sadr has accused the commission of being riddled with corruption and has called for its overhaul.

Shots rang out in central Baghdad as security forces used live fire and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

An Associated Press team at the scene witnessed ambulances rushing away protesters suffering from breathing difficulties.

Hospital officials said the policemen died of gunshot wounds. They gave no details as to the cause of death of the protesters.

While at times the crowds advanced towards the Green Zone, by afternoon they began to disperse after a statement from Mr al-Sadr's office called on his followers to refrain from trying to enter the compound.

Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister ordered an investigation into the violence.

"The prime minister ordered a full investigation into the injuries among security forces and protesters during the demonstration today in Tahrir square," read a statement from Haider al-Abadi's office on Saturday evening.

Mr al-Sadr's office issued another statement on Saturday night following news of protester casualties claiming that "excessive force" was used against the demonstrators and threatened greater protests.

"The next time the blood of our martyrs will not go in vain," the statement read.

"We will not give in to threats," said the head of the electoral commission, Serbat Mustafa, in an interview with a local Iraqi television channel on Saturday afternoon.

Mr Mustafa said he would not offer his resignation and accused Mr al-Sadr of using the commission as a political "scapegoat".

Mr al-Sadr has been a vocal critic of Mr al-Abadi, and last year protests that included many of his followers breached the Green Zone twice.

Attention in Iraq is generally focused on the war against Islamic State, with Iraqi forces currently fighting the militants in Mosul, but Mr al-Abadi is also facing a serious power struggle in Baghdad.

A deepening economic crisis and persistent insurgent attacks in the Iraqi capital have fuelled support for powerful political opponents of Mr al-Abadi like Mr al-Sadr.

Mr al-Abadi has said that he respects the rights of all Iraqis to peacefully demonstrate but called on the protesters to obey the law and respect public and private property.

AP

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