Iraqi Forces Kill Three Protesters as Top Cleric Warns of Crisis

Iraq's leading Shi’ite cleric called for politicians to hurry up in reforming electoral laws to resolve weeks of deadly unrest

Iraqi anti-government protesters hold a candlelight vigil in Baghdad's Tahrir square on November 21, 2019.
AFP

Iraqi security forces killed three protesters in Baghdad on Friday and forcibly dispersed protesters blocking the country’s main port near Basra, as the country’s top cleric warned nothing but speedy electoral reforms would resolve unrest.

Security forces opened fire and launched tear gas at protesters on a central Baghdad bridge, police sources said. Two people died from bullet wounds and one from a tear gas canister launched directly at the head. At least 27 more were injured.

In the south, security forces reopened the entrance to Iraq’s main port, Umm Qasr, which protesters had blocked since Monday, port sources said, but normal operations had not yet resumed.

At least 329 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in Baghdad and southern Iraq in early October, the largest demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Protesters are demanding the overthrow of a political class seen as corrupt and serving foreign powers while many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, healthcare or education.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Friday for politicians to hurry up in reforming electoral laws because the changes would be the only way to resolve weeks of deadly unrest.

raqi protesters flash the victory sign as they take part in an anti-government demonstration on al-Ahrar bridge in Baghdad on November 19, 2019.
AFP

 “We affirm the importance of speeding up the passing of the electoral law and the electoral commission law because this represents the country moving past the big crisis,” his representative said during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics except in times of crisis, holds massive influence over public opinion in Shi’ite-majority Iraq. He also repeated his view that the protesters had legitimate demands and should not be met with violence.

Unsatisfied by government reform promises they see as meager, many protesters have turned to civil disobedience tactics in recent weeks.

They had previously blocked Umm Qasr from October 29-November 9, apart from a brief resumption of operations for three days. It receives imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar shipments that feed a country largely dependent on imported food.

The initial blockage cost Iraq more than $6 billion during just the first week of the closure, a government spokesman said at the time.

Protesters in Baghdad are also disrupting traffic, and are still holding ground, controlling parts of three major bridges which lead to the capital’s fortified Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are located.