Iraqi prime minister demanded an immediate investigation into the deaths of two protesters on Monday, even as he faced the same accusations as his predecessor over protest-related violence.
The deaths threaten to reignite an unprecedented protest movement against government graft and incompetence that erupted across Baghdad and southern Iraq in October but had waned in recent months.
Protests breakout in Iraq with tear gas hung in the air
On Sunday, Iraqis staged angry rallies in the capital and several southern cities, where temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) have swelled demand for air-conditioning and overwhelmed dilapidated power grids.
Read more: Anti-government protesters killed in Iraq
But they turned violent in Baghdad’s main protest camp of Tahrir Square, where two men were struck by tear gas canisters, one in the neck and the other in the head, according to medics.
The deaths of the Iraqi protesters prompted outrage at Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, with activists accusing him of failing to stop a heavy-handed police response to the rallies.
He gave a rare televised address on Monday evening, saying Iraqis have “a legitimate right” to protest.
“Security forces are not permitted to fire a single bullet against our brothers, the demonstrators,” Kadhemi warned.
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“We have opened an investigation into all that happened yesterday in Tahrir Square, and I asked the results to be in front of me within 72 hours,” he said.
As he spoke, demonstrators in Tahrir had already gathered around the charred remains of their tents burned on Sunday night in clashes with police.
They burned tyres in new skirmishes with security forces and tear gas once again hung in the air, as protesters demanded the release of fellow activists who had been arrested.
Earlier, activists carried the bodies of the two dead through Tahrir, before driving to the Shiite holy city of Najaf south of the capital, for their burial.
“We had no guns, no knives, just our chants,” said Ahmad Jabbar, a male protester in the square.
“We (clashed) with them for six hours. They wouldn’t even let the ambulances come get the wounded,” he told.
‘No difference’ between Kadhemi and Abdel Mahdi governments
The deaths were the first since Kadhemi came to power and disappointed Iraqi protesters who had hoped the response to rallies would be different than under his predecessor Adel Abdel Mahdi.
Abdel Mahdi stepped down last year after he was blamed for a violent response to rallies.
“As it turns out, there’s no difference between the governments of Kadhemi and Abdel Mahdi,” said protester Maytham al-Darraji.
— Ruptly (@Ruptly) July 28, 2020
“If our guys aren’t freed, we’re going to ramp up our efforts. We’re staying in our tents, and we’re not afraid,” said Darraji.
Around 550 people were killed in the previous wave of rallies and another 30,000 wounded, many of them by military-grade tear gas canisters that can pierce the skull if fired directly rather than lobbed in an arc to disperse crowds.
There was virtually no accountability for those deaths under Abdel Mahdi; Kadhemi had pledged to publish a list of all the victims, carry out investigations and listen to protesters’ demands.
Online, Iraqis shared a doctored image of Abdel Mahdi’s handover to Kadhemi that depicted the outgoing premier pushing a collection of tear gas canisters and a rifle toward his successor.
The United Nations said it “deplored” the violence.
“Iraqis are in a difficult place facing many challenges. Their right to peaceful protest must be protected unconditionally,” the UN’s office in Iraq (UNAMI) said.
‘We want AC!’ chants by the Iraqi people amid power crisis
Hundreds of people also staged rallies in the southern cities of Kut and Hillah on Sunday.
In the southern flashpoint city of Nasiriyah, they briefly cut roads and chanted: “We can’t stand it, we want AC!”
Kadhemi chaired an emergency meeting alongside Iraq’s electricity minister on Monday and said he would “spare no effort” to improve the power situation for citizens.
Last year, rallies focused on infrastructure morphed into a broader movement slamming the entire ruling class as corrupt, unqualified and beholden to neighbouring Iran.
When Kadhemi came to power, observers saw him as a rare figure of compromise.
But he has struggled to keep Iraq afloat as the coronavirus pandemic has spread, state revenues have been slashed by a collapse in oil prices, and security has worsened.
Rockets continue to hit sites across Iraq where foreign troops and diplomats are based, and a German woman was briefly abducted last week.
Three more rockets late Monday struck the Iraqi base of Taji, north of Baghdad, that also houses US troops, an Iraqi security source told.
An Iraqi helicopter and a weapons assembly plant were hit, he said, without reporting casualties, adding the rockets were fired from a southern Baghdad district where Iran-backed Shiite factions are active.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk