PM deploys military chiefs to ‘impose security and restore order’

NASIRIYAH, Iraq: Iraq’s southern hotspot of Nasiriyah was in bloody upheaval yesterday after a government crackdown killed 25 protesters and thousands defied a curfew to march in their funerals, following the dramatic torching of an Iranian consulate. Iraq’s capital and south have been torn by the worst street unrest since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, as a protest movement has vented their fury at their government and its backers in neighboring Iran.

Late Wednesday, protesters outraged at Tehran’s political influence in Iraq burned down the Iranian consulate in the shrine city of Najaf, yelling “Victory to Iraq!” and “Iran out!” In response, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi early yesterday ordered military chiefs to deploy in several restive provinces to “impose security and restore order”, the army said. But by the afternoon, after the protesters’ deaths, the premier had already removed one of the commanders, General Jamil Shummary. Shummary had been dispatched to the premier’s birthplace of Nasiriyah, a southern city that has been a protest hotspot for weeks.

The ensuing crackdown was particularly bloody, with at least 25 protesters killed and more than 200 wounded as security forces cleared sit-ins with live fire, medics and security sources said. The provincial governor in Nasiriyah, Adel Al-Dakhili, blamed the crackdown on Shummary, who was the military commander of the southern port city of Basra when demonstrations there were brutally suppressed in 2018. Dakhili demanded the premier sack him, and hours later, state television announced Abdel Mahdi had ordered Shummary removed from the post.

Tribes deploy
The latest violence brought the death toll since early October to over 370, with more than 15,000 wounded according to an AFP tally, as authorities are not releasing updated or precise figures. Thousands of Nasiriyah’s residents took to the streets to mourn the city’s dead in funeral processions, defying a curfew announced there earlier in the day. “We’re staying until the regime falls and our demand are met!” they chanted.

Demonstrators who had been dispersed by security forces regrouped at Nasiriyah’s police station, setting it on fire. They then encircled its main military headquarters as armed members of the area’s influential tribes deployed along main highways to blockade military reinforcements trying to reach the city. Events in southern Iraq have unfolded dramatically since late Wednesday, when protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
They set tyres and other items ablaze around the consulate, sending tall flames and thick clouds of smoke into the night sky, an AFP correspondent witnessed. They also broke into the building itself, which had been apparently evacuated by its Iranian staff. Demonstrators across Iraq have blamed powerful eastern neighbor Iran for propping up the Baghdad government which they are seeking to topple.

Tehran demanded Iraq take decisive action against the protesters, with foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi condemning the attack. “Iran has officially communicated its disgust to the Iraq ambassador in Tehran,” he said in comments carried by Iran’s state news agency IRNA.

Karbala clashes
Iran’s consulate in Iraq’s other holy city of Karbala was targeted earlier this month, and security forces defending the site shot four demonstrators dead at the time. Iran and Iraq have close but complicated ties. The two countries fought a devastating 1980-1988 war, but Iran now has significant sway among Iraqi political and military leaders. Top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, Tehran’s pointman on Iraq, has held several meetings in Baghdad and Najaf to convince political factions to close rank around the government of Abdel Mahdi.

Those meetings previously paved the way for a brief crackdown in Baghdad and the south late last month but the protest movement proved resilient. Sit-ins, road closures and street marches have kept public offices and schools shut across many of Iraq’s southern cities for weeks. On Thursday, clashes broke out near the provincial headquarters of Karbala between some 200 protesters and riot police using tear gas and flash bangs.

Protesters kept up their sit-ins in Kut, Amara and Hilla, all south of the capital, despite a notably larger security presence. In the oil-rich port city of Basra, most government offices reopened but schools remained closed as security forces deployed in the streets. Iraq is OPEC’s second-largest crude producer and the oil exported through Basra’s offshore terminals funds more than 90 percent of the government’s budget.

Protesters have accused the ruling elite of embezzling for personal gain state funds that are desperately needed to restore failing public services and fix schools. Corruption is rampant in Iraq, ranked the world’s 12th most graft-ridden country by Transparency International. One in five Iraqis lives in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, according to the World Bank. – AFP