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Two Baghdad protesters die after clashes with police — medics

BAGHDAD — Two demonstrators died in Baghdad early Monday after being shot in confrontations with security forces, the first victims of protest-related violence under a new Iraqi premier who had promised a dialogue with activists.

The deaths threaten to reignite an unprecedented movement slamming government graft and incompetence, which erupted across Baghdad and the country's south in October but had waned in recent months.

On Sunday, demonstrators staged angry rallies in the capital and several southern cities, where temperatures topping 50°C have swelled demand for air-conditioning, overwhelming dilapidated power grids.

In Baghdad, dozens gathered at the protest hub of Tahrir Square, clashing with police and other security forces stationed there.

"Two protesters died this morning. One was shot with a tear gas canister in the head, and another in the neck," a medical source told AFP on Monday.

Their bodies were carried through Tahrir on Monday morning by fellow activists, before being driven to the holy city of Najaf to be buried.

An AFP correspondent saw the burnt remains of tent structures in the square on Monday morning.

The two victims are the first since Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi, who had promised a dialogue with protesters, took office in May.

In a statement overnight, his office acknowledged “unfortunate events” in protest squares, but insisted security forces had been instructed not to use violence unless absolutely necessary.

It said the government would carry out an investigation into Sunday’s events to hold those responsible to account.

‘A difficult place’ 

 

But online, activists were already comparing Kadhemi to his predecessor Adel Abdel Mahdi, who stepped down last year following months of protest-related violence.

Around 550 people were killed in that wave of rallies and another 30,000 wounded, many of them by military-grade tear gas canisters that can pierce human skulls 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 protester demands.

But activists on Monday appeared to see little difference between the two, sharing 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.

They called for more rallies on Monday night, sending out invitations to gather over Whatsapp and Facebook.

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!’ 

 

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 the AC!”

Protests over power cuts, poor water access and other failing public services are normal across Iraq, whose infrastructure has been battered by decades of war and lack of investment.

No electricity minister in Iraq’s post-2003 system has finished his full four-year mandate, either resigning, being sacked or losing the post as the entire cabinet fell.

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 in May, observers saw him as a rare figure who could strike a balance among Iraq’s divided politicians, protesters and even its allies, Washington and Tehran.

But he has struggled to keep the country 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 — the third kidnapping of a foreign national this year.

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