Protesters Block Roads to Iraqi Port, Demand End to Foreign Meddling

BAGHDAD – Security forces killed a protester and wounded 91 others in Baghdad on Saturday, security and medical sources said, as tens of thousands of Iraqis gathered in anti-government protests in the capital and blocked roads leading to a major port. 

Protesters have been congregating in the capital’s Tahrir Square for weeks, demanding the fall of the political elite in the biggest wave of mass demonstrations since the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein. 

Protests have accelerated dramatically in recent days, drawing huge crowds from across sectarian and ethnic divides.  

They have been comparatively peaceful by day, becoming more violent after dark as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to 
battle self-proclaimed “revolutionary” youths. More than 250 people were killed in October. 

Clashes have focused on the ramparts to the Republic Bridge leading across the Tigris to the heavily fortified Green Zone of government buildings, where the protesters say out-of-touch leaders are holed up in their walled-off bastion of privilege. 

An Iraqi demonstrator receives medical help after being affected by tear gas during anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 1, 2019.

Walls erected, then removed

Security forces on Saturday erected concrete walls on one of Baghdad’s main streets that leads into Tahrir Square to try to reduce the turnout, but a spontaneous protest in which crowds surrounded soldiers driving bulldozers forced them to 
take the structures down. 

“Take it down, take it down,” they chanted. 

The protests, driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption, have disrupted nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq. 

Despite the country’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, health care or education. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in office for a year, has found no response to the protests. 

Thousands of protesters were blocking all roads leading to Iraq’s main Persian Gulf port, Umm Qasr, near the oil-rich city of Basra, after security forces used live rounds and tear gas overnight. 

Operations at the port, which receives the bulk of Iraq’s imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar, have stopped since Wednesday. 

On Friday, both the teachers’ and lawyers’ unions said they would extend strikes they began last week.  

Foreign interference

Many see the political class as subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s allies, who critics say are using Iraq as a proxy in a struggle for regional influence. 

“We don’t want anyone interfering in our affairs, not Saudi Arabia, not Turkey, not Iran, not America. It’s our country. Our demands are clear,” said protester Ahmed Abu Mariam. 

Anti-government demonstrators protest the security forces trying to block a street leading to protest areas in Baghdad, Iraq,…
Anti-government demonstrators protest security forces’ efforts to block a street leading to protest areas in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2019.

The root cause of grievances is the sectarian power-sharing system of governance introduced in Iraq after 2003.  

“We want an end to sectarian power-sharing. Jobs should not be doled out based on whether you are Sunni or Shiite. We want all these parties gone and replaced with a presidential system,” said law student Abdulrahman Saad, 22, who has been camped out in Tahrir Square for nine days. 

The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said authorities were violating human rights and using excessive force against protesters by firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, which have killed scores after striking them directly in the head and chest. 

A government committee investigating violence that occurred Oct. 1-7 found that 149 civilians had been killed because security forces used excessive force and live fire to quell protests. 

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