At least 12 protesters died over the weekend as Iraqi security forces continued to crack down on demonstrations. The unrest that began Oct. 1 shows no sign of abating as protesters call for an overhaul of Iraq’s political system and blame neighboring Iran for its role in the country’s plight.
The violence intensified on Saturday afternoon as protesters continued their near-daily attempt to cross the three bridges over the Tigris River into the heavily guarded Green Zone, where the seat of the government is stationed. Security forces killed five people with live fire, while a sixth person died after suffering a direct hit to the head with a tear gas canister. More than 100 others sustained injuries.
On Sunday, Iraqi forces shot and killed three protesters in the southern city of Nassiriya. Three others died on Friday in Basra.
Frustration over corruption and a lack of jobs and basic services grew into calls to bring down the government. More than 319 people have died since then.
Many protesters blame Iran for the poor conditions, since the country still supports many of the militia groups that mustered in 2014 to defeat Islamic State. The group now known as the Popular Mobilization Forces has become a strong political faction in Iraq, with the second-highest parliamentary representation. Protesters also accuse Iran-backed politicians of restructuring the Iraqi armed forces after the sudden removal of Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who led the counterterrorism force, and other high-level officials.
“The Iraqi people, especially the Shias, have finally realized that the Iranian interference has a negative impact on their living, economic, and political conditions,” Shaho Al-Qaradaghi, an adviser of the New Iraq Center, told the Andalou Agency in Turkey.
Human Rights Watch reported that security forces have violently clamped down on the protests, killing at least 16 people since Oct. 25 by firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters.
Some protesters have mysteriously disappeared. Rasool Mohammed, an activist from Baghdad suburb Sadr City, told the Associated Press that four of his friends vanished in recent days: “They’re not among the dead, they’re not among the wounded, where are they? We don’t know who took them.”
In a sermon on Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on security forces to refrain from violence and to meet the protesters’ demands. “It is no longer permissible to procrastinate on this issue because of the great risks facing the country,” said Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a spokesman for al-Sistani.
Since the protests began, the Iraqi government has offered to roll out social welfare plans, hire more people in the already crowded public sector, and push for early elections once a new voting law is in place. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also offered to resign once political leaders agree on his replacement. But the efforts have not quelled the unrest. Protesters are calling for a complete change of the political system.
Al Hamsa Hamid told Al Jazeera he serves as a “goalie,” referring to protesters who stop deadly tear gas thrown across the river by security forces: “I’m doing it for my future children. I don’t want them to suffer like I did. And for dignity, I don’t want [Iranian-backed] militias in my country. We have a democracy.”