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Iraqis rally to revive year-old revolt

BAGHDAD: Iraqi demonstrators wave flags as they gather in Tahrir Square in the center of the capital yesterday to mark the first anniversary of a massive anti-government movement demanding the ouster of the entire ruling class accused of corruption. – AFP

BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces fired water cannon and tear gas at anti-government protesters yesterday to prevent them crossing barricades on a bridge leading towards government buildings. The skirmishes came as hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad and some southern cities to hold anti-government protests, marking a year since mass anti-government unrest that killed more than 500 people.

“We will not stop protesting to demand our stolen rights. We are the victims of corrupted governments,” said Najim Abdullah, a protester standing near the Jumhuriya bridge in the capital. Security forces had deployed in force to control protests that began in the morning, and to stop demonstrators crossing Jumhuriya bridge, which leads to the fortified Green Zone that houses government buildings and foreign missions. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

On the bridge, hundreds of protesters atop concrete barriers yesterday shouted slogans in memory of fallen “martyrs”, waving Iraqi flags and portraits of those killed. Security forces also sealed off other bridges over the Tigris River. “We want to dissolve parliament, a transparent electoral law, a new law organizing political parties and for the state to take control of the flow of arms,” said lawyer Sajjad Salam, leading a group of demonstrators from the southern city of Kut.

Hussein Mortada from Amara, also in the south, said he was he was determined to take part in the revival of the so-called “October revolution” despite “threats from political parties and powerful local figures”. “We want to achieve our objective of building a new Iraq,” Ali Ghazi, a demonstrator from the southern city of Nasiriyah that has been also at the center of protests, told AFP.

Yesterday’s protests were more subdued than demonstrations last year where thousands rallied in Baghdad and the south, facing off against security forces and militiamen in clashes that maimed and killed mostly young, jobless demonstrators. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who took office in May after his predecessor was driven out by last year’s unrest, has painted himself as a leader who supports demonstrators.

In a televised address on Saturday he pledged to hold early and fair elections, a demand of many pro-democracy activists, and said security forces would this time around not harm any peaceful protesters. “We want our freedom. We want our rights,” one protester said after throwing stones at riot police above Jumhuriya bridge. He retreated when police responded with tear gas.

Security forces and unidentified gunmen carried out a fierce crackdown on anti-government disturbances that erupted in Oct 2019, killing hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters using live gunfire and tear gas. The protesters had taken to the streets in mostly uncoordinated opposition to the political elite that has ruled since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

They accuse those in power, especially Iranian-backed parties and militia groups, of fuelling endemic corruption that kept large swathes of the oil-rich Arab country in ruins even during times of relative peace. Since the 2017 defeat of Islamic State militants, a moment many Iraqis hoped would signal a turning point for their country, millions have struggled to make a living and been deprived of reliable electricity, clean water and education.

Threats, killings and abductions of activists have continued since the protests lost steam earlier this year, out of a combination of protester fatigue and movement restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. – Agencies

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