New clashes break out in Baghdad despite calls for calm

IRAQ, BAGHDAD (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Clashes erupted again between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters in Baghdad on Friday despite a call for calm by the country’s top Shi’ite cleric as authorities face the biggest crisis in years.

Iraq news
File Reuters
Iraq news
File Reuters

Security forces fired tear gas and sound bombs at crowds of protesters wearing helmets and shields on a main street in the center of the capital, dispersing them and wounding some, Reuters reporters said.

Protests erupted in Baghdad on October 1 over lack of jobs and poor services, and quickly spread to the southern provinces. Security forces began firing live rounds to break up the demonstrations almost immediately after the outbreak and more than 260 people were killed, according to police and paramedics.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shi’ite cleric, said security forces were responsible for any escalation in violence and urged the government to respond to the protesters’ demands as soon as possible.

Sistani speaks in political affairs only in times of crisis, and has a wide influence in public opinion in predominantly Shiite Iraq.

A representative of al-Sistani said in the Friday sermon in the city of Karbala, “Maintaining the peaceful nature of the protests of all kinds is of great importance“.

Sistani’s words have not calmed the protesters, some of whom view the Shi’ite cleric as part of the political and religious system they see as the cause of many Iraqis’ suffering.

“A letter of reference is neither helpful nor harmful,” said a woman participating in a protest in Baghdad, whose son was killed in recent clashes. They tell us we are standing with you.

“I am the mother of a student, they took his life,” added the woman, who identified herself as the mother of the martyr.

Protesters, mostly unemployed youths, are now demanding reforms in the political system and the ruling elite that has dominated state institutions since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The authorities’ violent response has fueled popular anger. Reuters reported that Iranian-backed groups involved in the crackdown on protesters deployed snipers last month.

– Deadly force remains –

Human Rights Watch said on Friday that live bullets were still being used to counter protests, and that tear gas canisters thrown directly at protesters rather than throwing them over them killed at least 16 people.

Doctors at hospitals showed Reuters pictures of tear gas canisters piercing the skulls of protesters.

Sistani warned of the presence of “parties and internal and external parties … may seek today to exploit the ongoing protest movement to achieve some of its objectives.” He gave no details.

He added that the political forces in power have a unique opportunity to respond to the demands of citizens according to an agreed roadmap, which will be implemented within a specified period of time, putting an end to a long era of corruption, abhorrent quotas and the absence of social justice. “There are big risks for the country.”

The allocation of subsidies to the poor, pledges to prosecute corrupt officials and more jobs for graduates has failed to pacify protesters, whose demands include a new election system and the exclusion of all current political leaders.

The protesters also rejected foreign interference in Iraq, which has long found itself in the clutches of its two main allies and foes: the United States and Iran.

Public anger is particularly focused on Iran, which backs parties and armed groups that dominate the Baghdad government and state institutions.

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