Iraq: security forces regain territory in violent crackdown

Iraq: security forces regain territory in violent crackdown
Iraq: security forces regain territory in violent crackdown

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Iraqi security forces fired teargas and live bullets in renewed clashes with protesters in Baghdad and other cities on Sunday, protesters said.

The security forces tried to clear sit-in camps across the country and fired live rounds in the air after protesters resisted with petrol bombs and stones. At least 14 protesters were wounded in the capital and at least 17 were wounded in Nassiriya in the south, medical sources said.

The furore began overnight on Friday and the early hours of Saturday morning, when Iraqi anti-riot forces advanced towards Tahrir Square.

They pushed past massive concrete T-walls to Al Khilani avenue, which borders the entrance to the square and set tents—many of which were used to treat the wounded—aflame.

“I am a victim,” said Mohamed Al Seif, a young medic who volunteered at one of the tents destroyed by the security forces. He knelt sweeping up the still-smoking ashes of his tent as he described the “boxing style” beating by security forces.

Mr Al Seif said the forces arrived around 10am. “There were five us inside the tent, they beat all of us. They came aiming at us with live bullets,” he recalled.

It wasn’t just Baghdad that suffered. Also on Saturday, following a call from influential Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr to end to protests, remaining demonstrators faced a renewed crackdown. Security forces advanced on protest centres across Iraq’s Southern provinces, burning tents and violently dispersing protesters.

The attacks left at least four dead, three in the Southern City of Nasiriyah and one in Baghdad. They come after days of increasing state violence against protesters on Baghdad’s Mohammed Qassem highway.

Since the very start of the protests in October 2019, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has functioned as a second home for protesters. Young men and women created a mini-city including libraries, brightly painted walls, and kitchen set-up to keep demonstrators well nourished.

As the protests lengthened beyond four months, protesters took over more space, branching off from Tahrir Square to occupy three bridges, two squares, and in recent weeks the Mohammed Qassem Highway, a key artery for Baghdad traffic.

On Friday, influential Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr held his “million-man march” against the American presence in Iraq, packing the streets with thousands of his supporters. The main bulk of the march was held in Jadariya, a neighbourhood about half an hour away from Tahrir.

The Sadr march ended early in the afternoon, with the cleric ordering his supporters home after releasing a statement calling for a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops. But in Tahrir Square some protesters, eager to show that Mr Al Sadr did not represent them, began to chant against him.

Later that night the cleric released a statement saying he was “disappointed” in the protesters who refused to go home, and withdrew his support for the movement. Hours later at around 4am, security forces stormed Basra’s sit-in, burning tents and violently dispersing protesters.

In Baghdad, many Sadrists packed up their tents and returned home to the dismay of demonstrators.

“I told them not to go,” said Ali Meyahi, a member of the Sadr movement who remained in the square despite the cleric’s statement. He described crying ied as he watched them leave, “I could not go home, this is my nation. How could I leave my nation and go home?” he said.

He blamed those who chanted against Mr Al Sadr for the statement, “The half that opposed Sadr caused all of these problems … After that Sadr said I do not support you.” said Mr Meyahi.

In the early hours Saturday, security forces pushed the young protesters, who in an act of civil disobedience had blocked Mohammed Qassem highway with burning tires, back towards Tahrir Square. They took back the Sinak and Ahrar bridges, advancing on Al Khilani by midmorning, burning tents mere metres away from the central square.

Standing next to the sooty remains of Al Seif’s tent, a young protester was outraged.

“Today after Sadr left, the political parties and the anti-riot forces advanced on us,” said Hassan, who did not want to give his real name, for fear of reprisals.

“They say we follow America. What do we have to do with America? … We don’t have a relationship with them. I came out for nation. We came to get rid of the political parties.”

Al Sadr provided political support, while his command over the Saraya Al Salam militia also provided an implicit political support for the protesters. When he withdrew, protesters said it sent a message to political parties that they could fully clear the squares.

“Sadr gave them legitimacy to attack the protesters,” said Amir, who did not want to give his real name out of security concerns.

Nizar Hamed stood next to the remains of the medical tent where he had volunteered for three months. It had been reduced to ash, with only the metal frame and a sign reading “Made in Iraq,” remaining. Hamed showed a picture of the tent prior to the attack — its walls had been decorated with a giant Iraqi flag and the message “God is Great” emblazoned across the centre.

“This tent had the Iraqi flag. They burnt the name of God. How can they burn the Iraqi flag and the name of God,” he asked. “They do not Islam, religion, and they do not know Iraq. Those people only want money, and are only interested in their salaries. Not more or less.”

He said that anti-riot forces advanced on them firing live bullets while and his team had been sleeping the tent where they had volunteered daily for three months.

“They called us infiltrators, but I told them, we are here for humanitarian reasons. We’re not spoilers. Why would you burn our tent?” said Hamed.

He said that now the protesters are alone. “Who do we have?” Hamed asked, “There’s not a single human rights organisation defending us. no one protects us.”

Despite the violence, Hamed’s colleague Mr Al Seif is determined to carry on assisting the protest movements’ wounded.

“Let them come back. Us or them,” he said, “I will continue until death.”

Updated: January 26, 2020 07:57 PM

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