ongoing chaos in iraq

Iraq Protests Continue Despite Claims of a Deal
Jason Ditz, Antiwar.com, Nov 10 2019

There are reports out of Iraq this weekend claiming that a deal has been reached to end mass protests against the Abd’el-Mahdi government, and to keep him in power. There are substantial questions about this claim, and it may be premature to call the protests over. As in the past, the drive to end the protests is coming out of Iran. Gen Qasem Soleimani was sent to Najaf and Baghdad to meet with top Iraqi Shi’ite boxtops and inform them that Iran prefers Abd’el-Mahdi remain in power. Soleimani had met with both Moqtada al-Sadr and the son of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani over the matter. Abd’el-Mahdi has announced that there will be electoral reforms, though he’s continuing to say he won’t accept any calls to resign unless he believe the transfer of power would be smooth. How true all of this is may be the bigger question, however, as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has denied having been involved in any agreement to save Abd’el-Mahdi’s government, and is standing by his Friday calls for them to unconditionally meet the demands of protesters and stop attacking them. Protests are continuing, and don’t seem to be slowing despite reports of a deal. Government forces are continuing to use live ammunition to fire on them as well, despite Sistani cautioning security forces to cut that out.

Iraq factions ‘reach deal’ to protect Abd’el-Mahdi & end protests
al-Araby.co.uk, Nov 9 2019

Iraq’s political class has reached a consensus to protect PM Abd’el-Mahdi’s government against protests sweeping the country’s capital and south for weeks, sources told AFP on Saturday. The agreement is the product of a series of meetings, including gatherings led by Maj-Gen Qasem Soleimani. He has met with top leaders in Najaf and Baghdad, piling on the pressure to close ranks around Abd’el-Mahdi. A source present at some of those meetings told AFP:

Soleimani met with Moqtada Sadr and Mohammed Ridha Sistani, the son of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, all of whom have vocally backed the protests. The meetings resulted in an agreement that Abd’el-Mahdi would remain in office.

Public anger erupted into demonstrations on Oct 1 against corruption and a lack of jobs, escalating into calls for the entire ruling system to be overturned. Another source said political factions agreed this week to move forward on reforms if the premier and government stayed in place. The source, a high-ranking member of a party that was represented at the gathering, said:

Most of the heads of major blocs agreed in a meeting to keep Abd’el-Mahdi and maintain power in exchange for reforms on corruption and constitutional amendments. They agreed to end the protests with any means possible and to reopen the bridges and shuttered streets.

In a speech read out on his behalf on Friday in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq’s foremost Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, praised protesters while holding Iraqi security forces responsible for their deaths. He added that the Iraqi government must immediately meet protesters’ demands. Sistani said:

Iraqi political factions who hold power now have a unique opportunity to meet protesters’ demands according to an agreed roadmap, within a specific period of time.

However, Sistani also said that there were “internal and foreign” factions trying to influence the protests. The head of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, Wathiq Al-Hashemi, said Sistani’s remarks could be interpreted as a second chance to Abd’el-Mahdi, who has been deserted by allies and faced calls to resign. He said that Sistani wanted to give a message to Abd’el-Mahdi that he could stay in office for now as long as he made a serious attempt to carry out reforms. Overnight, security forces began clearing out protest camps in Baghdad, the port city of Basra and the holy city of Karbala. In Baghdad, Iraqi security forces wrested back control of three bridges that had been partially occupied by anti-government protesters in recent days, AFP correspondents said on Saturday. They retook the Al-Sinek, Al-Shuhada and Al-Ahrar bridges over the River Tigris that link the east bank, where the main protest camps are located, with neighbourhoods on the west bank that are home to government offices and foreign embassies. Amid volleys of tear gas, security forces chased demonstrators back onto Al-Rashid Street. Protesters still occupy part of Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge, the southernmost of the capital’s bridges and the closest to the main protest camp in Tahrir Square. Over the past two weeks, demonstrators had spilt over from the square, first taking over part of Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge before creeping north onto the other three. But the government ordered the security forces to keep them back, as Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge leads into the Green Zone. Al-Sinek Bridge provides access to the embassy of Iran. Al-Ahrar and Al-Shuhada bridges lead to the PMO and state TV HQ. Nearly 300 people have been killed since demonstrations erupted on Oct 1 and swiftly spread from Baghdad to cities across the south, according to an AFP toll. The government has stopped issuing updated tolls.

Iraqi PM says electoral reforms to be announced in a ‘few days’
Al-Jazeera, Nov 9 2019

PM Abd’ul-Mahdi has said that ongoing protests are important in bringing about reform, but must allow for a return to normal life. In a statement on Saturday, he said that new electoral reforms would be announced in the “coming few days”, but fell short of giving further details, saying:

The protests have helped and will help pressure political groups, the government to reform and accept change. However continuing protests must allow for a return to normal life, which will lead to legitimate demands being met.

His remarks come a day after fresh clashes erupted between Iraq’s security forces and anti-government protesters in the capital, Baghdad, as well as across the south of the country, despite a call for calm by the country’s top Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Since Oct 1, Iraqis have been pouring onto the streets to protest against corruption and the government’s failure to deliver basic services and economic opportunities. The protesters’ demands have since widened to include the resignation of the government and a complete overhaul of the country’s political system, which was established after a US-led invasion that critics say has allowed certain individuals and groups to enrich themselves and expand their influence. A crackdown by security forces against mostly unarmed protesters has killed more than 260 people since the protests began. Live fire is still being used and tear gas canisters, fired directly at protesters’ bodies instead of being lobbed into crowds, have killed at least 16 people, HRW said on Friday. Rights groups have also raised the alarm over the arrest and intimidation of activists and medics, who have reported being followed by unidentified security forces. In his statement, Abd’ul-Mahdi promised that the government and judiciary will continue to investigate the deaths, adding that all detainees who have been arrested in the past several weeks would be released. He wrote:

Anybody who was assaulted, kidnapped, or anybody who participated in assault, kidnap, or arrest outside of the legal framework, will face trial.

Abd’ul-Mahdi’s statement came almost a week after he had appealed to protesters to suspend their movement, which he said had achieved its goals and was hurting the economy. The prime minister has previously promised a number of reforms, including stipends for the poor, more job opportunities for graduates and pledges to punish a handful of corrupt officials. But critics say such moves have come too late, with protesters demanding an overhaul of state institutions, a flawed electoral process, and the departure of the entire political class. The protesters have also rejected foreign interference. Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Baghdad, said the mood in Baghdad’s Tahrir square, the epicentre of the protests in the Iraqi capital, has been “one of resolve” despite similar pledges made in the past. Jamjoom said:

Everybody we’ve spoken with (is) saying they are committed to continuing to come out here. Everybody is saying they are committed to this cause. They are going to continue coming out on the streets until they feel the government is taking their demands seriously. Many say when they hear Iraqi politicians speaking, it’s like they’re on a separate planet, like they’re disconnected from reality.

Earlier this month, Pres Barham Salih said Abd’ul-Mahdi was willing to resign once political leaders agreed on a replacement. He called for a new electoral law and said he would approve early parliamentary polls once it was enacted. Abd’ul-Mahdi’s statement did not mention resignation. Even if the new electoral law is quickly approved, the process of holding elections and forming a new government could take several months. Meanwhile, internet returned briefly in most parts of Iraq on Saturday after being largely shut down for three days. Authorities have heavily restricted internet access during the protests.

Sistani denies participating in Iraq agreement to end protests
AFP, Nov 10 2019

Iraq’s foremost Shia Muslim religious authority has denied involvement in a cross-factional agreement to crush protest and secure the rule of PM Abd’ul-Mahdi. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has previously sided with the demonstrators, calling on the government to meet protesters’ demands in a Friday speech, but had been rumoured to be involved in Saturday’s agreement to end the mass protest movement. Initial reports indicated that meetings surrounding the deal led by Gen Qasem Soleimani were attended by the Ayatollah’s son, Mohammed Ridha al-Sistani. A statement by Sistani’s office circulated by Iraqi media on Saturday, the country’s most important Shia cleric rejected reports of his involvement in the controversial agreement, saying:

The position of the religious authority towards the popular protests and how to handle them is to respond to the protesters’ demands, as was clearly stated in the Friday sermon.

AFP had previously reported that Moqtada al-Sadr had also been party to the negotiations. Sadr has also previously expressed support for the demonstrations, but has yet to make a statement on the deal. The closed-door meetings, said to have resulted in a deal to keep Abdel-Mahdi in power and put an end to the near-nationwide protests, were reportedly organised by Soleimani. Sistani on Friday warned of foreign meddling in Iraq, urging political factions to avoid deadly infighting. He said during his weekly sermon:

No person or group, no side with a particular view, no regional or international actor may seize the will of the Iraqi people and impose its will on them.

As reports of the agreement to end the mass protests by any means necessary emerged on Saturday, security forces began to sweep the streets of protest hubs in the capital Baghdad and Basra in an attempt to force out demonstrators. At least eight people were killed overnight in the clashes, prompting Amnesty International to urge the government to “rein in” its security forces to prevent a “bloodbath.” AI MENA Director Heba Morayef said in a statement on Saturday:

This is turning into nothing short of a bloodbath – all government promises of reforms or investigations ring hollow while security forces continue to shoot and kill protesters. The government of Iraq has a duty to protect people’s right to life, as well as to gather and express their views. This bloodbath must stop now, and those responsible for it must be brought to justice.

AI condemned Iraq earlier this week for its alleged use of military-grade tear gas grenades to disperse protesters. Reportedly aimed directly at demonstrators’ heads at point-blank range, the Serbian- and Iranian-produced grenades have caused multiple horrific deaths and gruesome injuries.

Amnesty urges Iraq to ‘prevent bloodbath’ after eight killed overnight
Al-Araby.co.uk, Nov 10 2019

Amnesty International has urged Iraq to “rein in” its security forces amid fears of a “bloodbath” after at least eight protesters were killed overnight. The country’s various political factions came to an agreement on Saturday to end the protests and keep PM Abd’ul-Mahdi in power, prompting the deployment of security forces to sweep the streets of demonstrators. With at least eight killed overnight, two of them reportedly by tear gas grenades as security forces attempted to clear the streets around Baghdad’s protest hubs, Amnesty called on the government to immediately rein in its forces to prevent further deaths. Iraqi authorities were accused earlier this week of using deadly military-grade tear gas grenades to disperse the mass anti-government protests. Amnesty MENA Director Heba Morayef said:

Baghdad and Basra have seen yet more bloody days of excessive force meted out against protesters. Iraqi authorities must immediately order an end to this relentless, unlawful use of lethal force.

Recent days witnessed the killing of at least 12 protesters in the southern city of Basra, with the total number killed over the past month at least 264, according to the human rights group. The Independent High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq on Saturday put the toll at 301 killed and almost 15,000 injured. Speaking to AFP, Iraqi activists have also warned of a pervasive climate of fear amounting to a psychological war, with at least four well-known campaigners assasinated by unknown assailants in Basra and Amara. Activists have also been subject to mysterious disappearances and threats. Some suspect they were arrested by undercover police officers. Morayef said:

This is turning into nothing short of a bloodbath. All government promises of reforms or investigations ring hollow while security forces continue to shoot and kill protesters. The government of Iraq has a duty to protect people’s right to live, as well as to gather and express their views. This bloodbath must stop now, and those responsible for it must be brought to justice.

According to AI, medical workers who had witnessed security forces violently attempt to disperse demonstrators on Saturday said at least two caches of medical equipment used to treat horrific protester injuries had been destroyed in the fray, perhaps deliberately. One medic said that tents being used to treat injured protesters near al-Rashid street in Baghdad caught fire as security forces launched tear gas at demonstrators, destroying medical equipment worth thousands of dollars. Another described how security forces stormed a medical tent near al-Sinak bridge, throwing tear gas canisters on the ground despite the presence of injured demonstrators. The canisters caused the tent to catch fire, forcing the medics and injured to flee, leaving behind precious medical equipment. The attack also destroyed a tuk-tuk, clearly marked for its use to ferry injured protesters to hospital, the medic said. Activists have previously accused security forces of deliberately attacking tuk-tuk drivers.

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