Iraq protests: Death toll climbs to 42 as demonstrators killed storming pro-government militia’s office

Baghdad protesters mourn lives lost as hundreds battle tear gas to force way into heavily fortified government zone 

Andy Gregory
Saturday 26 October 2019 18:23 BST
Baghdad police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators

The known death toll in Iraq’s anti-government protests climbed to 42, after it emerged a dozen demonstrators were killed in a fire started as they stormed the office of a powerful militia.

Soldiers fired live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds enraged by corruption, unemployment and failing public services, as violent protests reignited on Friday after an uneasy three-week hiatus.

Hundreds gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square again yesterday, battling tear gas in an attempt to enter a heavily fortified government zone, while others read verses from the Quran to mourn those killed in the demonstrations.

The leaderless, spontaneous revolts at the start of October were the country’s deadliest in years, and were brutally curtailed by the government after a week in which more than 150 died and 6,000 were injured.

As the protests erupted afresh on Friday, a 16-year-old using his T-shirt to mask his face from tear gas in Tahrir Square told Reuters: “All we want are four things – jobs, water, electricity, and safety. That’s all we want.”

More than 2,000 people were injured nationwide on Friday, the Iraqi High Commission on Human Rights said.

Across southern Iraq, protesters tried to set fire to the offices of political parties, local government and armed groups, in some cases with fatal consequences, as crowds of thousands vented their fury.

The bodies of 12 protesters were removed from the powerful Badr Organisation’s torched headquarters in the southern city Diwaniyah, a senior official told AFP.

The Shia militia holds seats in government and is part of the state-sponsored Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella group, first established to combat Isis.

At least nine died when members of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia opened fire on protesters trying to set fire to their office in Nasiriya, also in the south.

Most of the deaths in Baghdad occurred as protesters were struck in the face by tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, security and hospital officials said. Hundreds were hospitalised, many with tear gas-induced shortness of breath.

Parliament was expected to meet yesterday in an emergency session on Saturday to discuss protesters’ demands.

Demonstrators say those in power have failed to improve people’s lives after years of conflict and economic hardship, and some accuse the government of kowtowing to the wishes of powerful allies like the US and Iran without thought for the Iraqi people.

“The government has been stealing from us for 15 years,” said a young protester who declined to be named. “Saddam went and 1,000 Saddams have been hiding in the Green Zone.”

The Green Zone is the central government zone of Baghdad that was closed to the Iraqi public for many years. Protesters tried to storm the area on Friday and were trying to do so again on Saturday.

The Ministry of Interior (MOI) praised what it called the restraint shown by security forces.

Iraqi authorities committed serious human rights violations and abuses in their crackdown on the first wave of protests, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) said in a report published on Wednesday.

The Iraqi government is still to publish the findings of its inquiry into security officials’ deadly response to the previous protests.

Prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has signed off on the inquiry’s call for dismissals and possible legal action against senior officials.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged it was the first time Iraq’s government had investigated alleged abuses, but said the probe’s recommendations did not go far enough.

The group’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: “However, the government needs to go beyond dismissals and hold officials, particularly those in command control, accountable for the wrongful use of lethal force and arbitrary arrests.”

The report by Unami showed most of those killed died of gunshots to the head and chest.

Additional reporting by agencies

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