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Violence in Baghdad as thousands demonstrate against Iraq government

At least 11 other people, including protesters and members of the security forces, were also injured in the clashes

February 11, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Violence broke out in the Iraqi capital Baghdad this morning as thousands of protesters marched on the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of power in Iraq, in protest over corruption and the perceived bias of the election commission, local media and activists reported.

One member of the Baghdad security forces was killed during the unrest, the head of the force said.

At least 11 other people, including protesters and members of the security forces, were also injured in the clashes – police used tear gas and fired rubber-coated bullets to try to disperse the crowds.

The protests were called by firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr – he urged supporters to occupy the Green Zone, that houses several government buildings as well as foreign embassies.

The protest started peacefully and several speakers addressed the large crowd in Tahrir Square before some of the demonstrators broke away and attempted to break through a security cordon guarding the main road to the Green Zone.

Security forces called in large numbers of reinforcements, but were unable to prevent a crowd of protesters crossing Republic Bridge, which straddles the Tigris River, on the way to the Green Zone.

However, the protest was dispersed before the crowd reached the Green Zone.

Al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army death squad that killed thousands of civilians less than a decade ago, called for a “tactical withdrawal” to protect civilians, accusing Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi personally of being responsible for what he called “excessive force” on the part of security forces.

In response to the protests, the head of the electoral commission refused to step down, calling the protests a “Shia-Shia dispute”.

Shia-Shia power struggles

Al-Sadr has been demanding deep political reform since last year, arguing that the current rules were tailored for Iraq’s leading parties, which he accuses of corruption and nepotism.

The protesters, most of them waving Iraqi flags, argued that the High Electoral Commission was compromised and not independent.

Earlier this week on Wednesday, thousands of Sadrists again took to the streets demanding reform of the Commission, as well as demanding the prevention of the return to high office of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Although Al-Maliki is a Shia politician criticised for his sectarianism, he is backed by Iran to a greater degree than Al-Sadr, leading to no love lost between the two. During his premiership, and with the help of the United States’ occupation forces, he also cracked down on Al-Sadr’s men in Basra in 2008, leading to hundreds of Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia to be killed and beginning a rivalry between the two men.

Al-Sadr has warned that he and his supporters would take “escalatory measures” if their demand was not met. Last year, they stormed the Iraqi parliament and vandalised it.

The current seat allocation system for parliament was adopted before 2014 parliamentary polls, after small parties made significant gains in provincial elections a year earlier.

For the past year, Al-Sadr’s supporters have staged numerous protests in Baghdad in an effort to pressure Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to appoint a government of “technocrats” that they say will ensure that Baghdad would be untainted by corruption or sectarian affiliations.

Those demonstrations were halted in October last year when Baghdad mustered some 100,000 men, thousands of whom are loyal to Al-Sadr, in a US and Iran-backed operation to retake the city of Mosul from Daesh.

In mid-2015, parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms ostensibly aimed at meeting popular demands to eliminate government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy, but these reforms were either not adopted or were blocked by political wrangling and disagreement.

The announcement last month that elections will take place in September, however, has brought the domestic political agenda back to the fore, with Al-Sadr’s supporters looking set to resume their campaign of street protests.