Thursday 5 December 2019

Iraqi troops shoot 27 dead as violent protests spread

Flames of anger: Protesters gather as fire consumes Iran’s consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. Photo: Getty
Flames of anger: Protesters gather as fire consumes Iran’s consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. Photo: Getty

Samta Kullab

SECURITY forces in Iraq shot dead 27 anti- government protesters in a 24-hour period amid spiralling violence in the capital and the country's south, as Iran condemned the burning of one of its consulates.

They fired live ammunition, killing four protesters and wounding 22 on the strategic Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad.

Violence across southern Iraq continued throughout the night, with security forces killing 23 protesters and wounding 165 since Wednesday. Protesters closed roads and police and military forces were deployed across key oil-rich provinces.

In Baghdad, protesters attempted to cross the Ahrar Bridge leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government. Protesters are occupying parts of three bridges - Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar - all leading to the fortified area.

Protesters had set fire to the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf in one of the worst attacks targeting Iranian interests in the country since the anti-government protests erupted two months ago. The Iranian staff were not harmed and escaped through the back door.

Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since October 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south. The largely leaderless movement accuses the government of being hopelessly corrupt and has also decried Iran's growing influence in Iraqi state affairs.

At least 350 people have been killed by security forces, which routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities.

Separately, the US Embassy denounced a recent decision by Iraq's media regulator to suspend nine television channels, calling for the Communications and Media Commission to reverse its decision. It also condemned attacks and harassment against journalists.

Local channel Dijla TV had its licence suspended on Tuesday for its coverage of the protests, and its office was closed and equipment confiscated, according to an official from one of the channels under threat.

Other channels have been asked by the regulatory commission to sign a pledge "agreeing to adhere to its rules", said the official, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

Isil also claimed responsibility for Tuesday's coordinated bombings in three Baghdad neighbourhoods, which killed five people.

It was the first apparently coordinated attack since anti-government protests began. The bombings took place far from Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of weeks of anti-government protests that have posed the biggest security challenge to Iraq since the defeat of Isil.

Tehran called for a "responsible, strong and effective" response to the incident from Iraq's government.

Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, saying it was perpetrated by "people outside of the genuine protesters", adding that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations.

One demonstrator was killed and 35 wounded when police fired live ammunition to try to prevent them from entering the consulate building.

Once inside, the demonstrators removed the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A curfew has now been imposed in Najaf. Security forces were heavily deployed around main government buildings and religious institutions yesterday morning. The province is the headquarters of the country's Shiite religious authority headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Al-Sistani has been largely supportive of protesters' demands, siding with them by repeatedly calling on political parties to implement serious reforms to appease demonstrators.

Irish Independent

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