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Iraqi military admits to ‘excessive force’ in crackdown against protesters

Protesters set fires during a demonstration in Baghdad on Sunday.
Protesters set fires during a demonstration in Baghdad on Sunday. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraq’s military acknowledged Monday that security forces have used “excessive force” to quash anti-government demonstrations while journalists described growing efforts to suppress reporting on the deadly violence.

Security forces have killed more than 100 people since protests erupted in Baghdad and southern cities last week, according to the Iraqi military. Hospitals have overflowed with more than 6,000 wounded. By Monday, the most serious clashes had been confined to Baghdad’s sprawling and impoverished district of Sadr City, where 15 deaths were reported the night before.

In a televised speech, Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned “unacceptable” attacks on both protesters and the media, and he urged security forces to preserve the rights of all Iraqis.

The week-long demonstrations began as a cry against corruption. As the response from security forces hardened, they became a revolt against the entire system. 

“Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts,” the military said in a statement, referring specifically to the violence Sunday night. It was the first acknowledgment that troops had used live ammunition against protesters. 

But the statement stopped short of admitting that security forces had used similar lethal tactics on previous days and in other locations, and it made no reference to attacks on medical personnel as they have treated the wounded. 

Medics in Baghdad have said their ambulances have come under fire, and reporters witnessed one medical crew being forced to retreat after tear gas was fired at a site where they were treating the wounded. 

“We call on all to show restraint in the ongoing protests and to allow health personnel to carry out their work unobstructed and in safety. The alternative is unthinkable for a population already weary and in need,” said Katharina Ritz, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s head of delegation in Iraq.

The protests come as the gulf between rich and poor in Iraq is widening, despite the country’s record oil output. For the 800,000 Iraqis who enter the job market each year, opportunities are scant. Government ministries spend much of their budgets fulfilling the patronage promises made by powerful politicians and clerics, economists say. 

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government has responded to the protests with a raft of promises, including more jobs and stipends for the unemployed. But Western officials and experts are skeptical about the government’s appetite — or capacity — for change.

“This is a clash between generations,” said Randa Slim, a nonresident fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “The system has been appropriated since 2003 by this political class to serve their own political and economic interests. … I don’t see a pathway out of this that allows the first generation to keep what they have while accepting the demands of the second.”

The street violence has been taking place amid a growing media blackout. Journalists from several publications said they had received phone calls from intelligence officials, warning them not to cover the protests. 

“They told me: ‘We like you, you know that. We recommend you stay off the airwaves for a while,’ ” said one media worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. 

Unidentified gunmen have raided the Baghdad bureaus of NRT TV, based in the Kurdistan region; Saudi-owned al-Arabiya; and local al-Dijla channel, confiscating equipment and ripping screens from the walls. 

Aziz al-Rubaye, an anchor with the NRT channel, said the assailants arrived in white Land Cruisers and did not appear to be members of Iraq’s conventional forces. They hurled insults at employees and grabbed cash and equipment before screeching off into the night, Rubaye said. 

“Storming [these] offices was meant to deliver a message of terror against all the free media, and their message has been delivered,” he said. “Protests have the same momentum, but now there is no coverage.”

By the time Iraqi authorities on Monday lifted its suspension of Internet service, which had affected much of the country, there was little coverage of the protests. Opposition-linked channels were offering only limited coverage, while they had broadcast dramatic footage of the protests days earlier. A reporter with one of the channels, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, described intimidating calls from intelligence officials to the station’s staff.

“The recent attacks on several broadcasters in Baghdad are a clear attempt to intimidate journalists and prevent them from covering the ongoing anti-government protests,” said Ignacio Miguel Delgado, Middle East and North Africa representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call on Iraqi authorities to investigate the attacks on the broadcasters and do their utmost to ensure journalists can cover the protests safely.”

Footage of the week’s bloodshed continued to circulate on social media Monday. 

In one video from a Baghdad hospital, the screams of a mother are heard as she waits for the body of her slain son. “My God,” she cried. “My God.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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