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US calls on Iraqi government to end violence and hold early elections

November 12, 2019 at 12:12 pm

Iraqi forces firing tear gas at demonstrators in Baghdad on 11 November 2019 [AP]

The US called upon the Iraqi government on Monday evening to end the violence against protesters on the nation’s streets. The call came after the killing of hundreds of civilians by government forces.

Washington also urged the Iraqi authorities to implement electoral reforms and hold early elections which President Barham Salih has promised to embrace. A statement from the White House added that, “The US is deeply concerned about the continuous attacks against demonstrators, civilian activists and media workers, in addition to the restrictions imposed on Internet access in Iraq.”

Three demonstrators were killed in southern Iraq yesterday, and dozens more were wounded by security forces, who opened fire in the centre of the capital. Amnesty International has warned of a “bloodbath” in the country.

Protesters are seen as having a destabilising influence by the Iraqi authorities. Their response has seen 319 people killed since the start of the protests on 1 October, most of them civilians. At least 12,000 others have been wounded, according to official figures announced yesterday morning.

READ: Iraqis bid sectarianism goodbye

The Iraqi political blocs agreed on Saturday to put an end to the protests, at a time when the demonstrators accuse major political parties of loyalty to Iran, which they see as the architect of Iraq’s current political system. Following this agreement to “go back to normal”, the security forces intensified the crackdown on protesters, while the country remains without internet access; social media platforms have been blocked for nearly a week.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s government has taken some measures in an attempt to calm the situation, including the provision of social aid to the needy and job opportunities for college graduates. However, these measures have failed to keep up with the rising demands of the protesters, who are now demanding the revision of the sectarian political system and the departure of the entire political class.

Under pressure from Shia religious authorities, the Iraqi government has recently pledged to implement more serious reforms, including reforming the electoral system and recognising the legitimacy of peaceful protest. Media outlets report that several Iraqi leaders agreed at a meeting in Baghdad yesterday that electoral reform should give Iraqi youth a better opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, in addition to breaking the control of power by political parties and their dominance over state institutions since 2003.

READ: US condemns use of violence against Iraq protesters

These protests, which are the largest seen for some time, are one of the most complex challenges to the political system established after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to the ousting and execution of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Iraq has suffered decades of wars, sanctions and, more recently, sectarian violence. The last conflict between Sunnis and Shia took place during the Daesh era, when the extremist group controlled most of northern and western Iraq. The country enjoyed a short period of calm after the defeat of Daesh in 2017.

The current protests are characterised by anti-sectarian rhetoric, and are led by mostly Shia protesters against a government dominated by Shia politicians and influential allies of Iran. Many Iraqis are hoping for real political change, but they fear the consequences of this popular unrest in case it continues for a long time. Many armed groups are vying for power while the Iraqi army, backed by western countries, continues to fight Daesh remnants across northern Iraq.