|Date: Oct 30, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Iraq anti-govt movement picks up momentum|
BAGHDAD: Tens of thousands of Iraqis packed Baghdad’s Tahrir Square Tuesday for a fifth day of protests, spurred on by reports of security forces shooting dead protesters in Karbala overnight and the prime minister’s refusal to call early elections. It was the largest gathering in the capital since a second wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi’s government and the ruling elite resumed Friday.
Security forces stationed on the nearby Joumhouria Bridge lobbed tear gas at protesters, who tried to break through to the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions.
“With life and blood we defend you, Iraq,” protesters chanted.
The crowd consisted mostly of young men, many draped in Iraqi flags. Surrounding streets brimmed with cars, taxis, motorcycles and tuk-tuks as more people made their way in.
Earlier, trade unions announced that they would call strikes, following the lead of lawyers and teachers.
The latest demonstration took place after a night of violence in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where, according to medical and security sources, Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters and killed at least 14 people.
At least 865 people were wounded, the sources said.
However, Karbala’s governor and police chief, Iraq’s prime minister and the military all denied anyone was killed.
Security and medical sources told Reuters that local authorities had received strict orders to cover it up. Most of the bodies were of young men from other provinces, they said.
Karbala’s health department chief said 122 people were injured, including 66 members of the security forces.
The total death toll since the unrest started on Oct. 1 is now at least 250 people.
Protester Salah al-Suweidi, speaking in Tahrir Square, said: “We want the government gone. Our demand is not for Abdel-Mahdi to resign. If he resigns, it’s not enough. Parliament must go, the parties must go.”
“Yesterday we broke the curfew and stayed the night. We will do so again today, even if 10, 20, 100, 1,000 die. What happened in Karbala will not be ignored, the blood of our brothers in Karbala and other provinces will not be in vain,” he said.
In southern Iraq, protesters blocked the entrance to Umm Qasr commodities port near Basra, slowing operations by around 80 percent, port employees and local officials said.
The protests, driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption, have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq.
The country has suffered for decades under the rule of Saddam Hussein and U.N. sanctions, the 2003 U.S. invasion and civil war it unleashed, and the battle against Daesh (ISIS), which was declared won in 2017.
An OPEC member, it has vast oil wealth, but many Iraqis live in poverty or have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic health care and education.
Most of the protesters are young men who above all want jobs. About 58 percent of Iraq’s population is aged under 24 and too young to remember Saddam’s rule, eroding the legitimacy of those claim to have helped oust him.
Many Iraqis blame a political elite they say is subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s two main allies, the United States and Iran. These powers use Iraq as a proxy to pursue their struggle for regional influence, without concern for the needs of ordinary people, they say.
Despite promising reforms and ordering a broad reshuffle of the Cabinet, Abdel-Mahdi has struggled to address the demonstrators’ complaints. Populist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who backs Parliament’s largest bloc and helped bring Abdel-Mahdi’s coalition government to power, called Monday for early elections after a curfew was announced in Baghdad.
In response, Abdel-Mahdi said Tuesday he could not call elections unilaterally and Parliament must vote with an absolute majority to dissolve itself.
Abdel-Mahdi said that if Sadr wanted a change in government, as the leader of one of the two main blocs in Parliament he could simply agree with his rival on a replacement.
Parliament passed measures Monday aimed at placating the protesters, but many said this was too little too late.
These included reduced salaries for officials, the formation of a committee to draft constitutional amendments, and the dissolution of all provincial and local councils outside the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
The root cause of grievances is the sectarian power-sharing system of governance introduced in Iraq after 2003, analysts and activists said.
After Saddam was ousted, many opposition groups returning from exile divided state positions among themselves after dismantling the civil service under the banner of “de-Baathification,” or getting rid of Saddam’s people.
This was replaced by sprawling patronage networks, not just within the new ruling Shiite majority political elites, but also in Kurdistan. Sunni elites, after initially boycotting the process while still reeling from their unseating, eventually followed suit.
These elites all exploited ethno-sectarian grievances. But Iraqis now are rejecting this system, even the Shiite majority who after 16 years of leading the government, still find themselves impoverished and undeserved.