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As protests rattle Iraq, influential Shiite cleric calls to overhaul political system

Protests continue in the center of the Iraqi capital Tuesday, after authorities failed to enforce an overnight curfew. (AFP/Getty Images)
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BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators amassed in central Baghdad and other Iraqi cities on Tuesday as one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite clerics, Moqtada al-Sadr, called for sweeping changes to the political system.

For the fifth consecutive day, Iraqis protesting government corruption, high unemployment and other grievances flocked to main squares in cities across the Shiite heartland in the south, demanding a complete overhaul of the political order. 

Iraq, despite its vast oil wealth, has been hobbled by a flagging economy and poor infrastructure. It also recently emerged from a years-long battle against the Islamic State militant group. 

“Our demands are clear: Change the electoral law and hold a new election that allows us to elect the person we want, not a party that makes agreements behind closed doors to decide our future according to their own self-interest,” said Sarah Mahdi, 24, a volunteer treating injured protesters in Baghdad. “We need a fresh start.”

Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in parliament, urged his political rivals on Tuesday to help him unseat Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi through a vote of no confidence. He also voiced support for revising the country’s electoral law and making changes to the constitution.

“If parliament doesn’t vote, the people’s voices will be heard,” he said in a statement after joining protesters in the holy Shiite city of Najaf on Tuesday afternoon. 

At least 83 people have been killed across Iraq since a new round of demonstrations erupted Friday, according to a Health Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. 

Earlier this month, 149 people were killed in a similar outburst of unrest, government officials said. A government-appointed inquiry into those week-long protests recommended the firing of senior security officials after finding them responsible for protesters’ deaths.

In this latest round of protests, demonstrators have been met with tear gas, gunfire and other violent tactics at the hands of security forces and armed militias, according to human rights groups.

Iraqi security forces have been accused of using excessive and sometimes lethal force against the largely peaceful protesters, including spraying them with scalding hot water. 

On Tuesday, Amnesty International described “horrific scenes” overnight in the southern city of Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, where security forces attempted to disperse demonstrators.

In a news release, the London-based Amnesty said security forces and riot police “opened fire using live ammunition as well as tear gas, chasing peaceful protesters staging a sit-in.” 

“Witnesses also said security forces attempted to run them over with vehicles,” Amnesty said, citing reports that 14 protesters were killed. 

Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights said one demonstrator was killed in Karbala, which is also revered by Shiite Muslims, late Monday. The local police chief said in a statement Tuesday that videos on social media showing protesters running from gunfire had been fabricated to “incite the street” against the government. 

At least 30 reportedly killed as Iraqi security forces clash with protesters in fresh unrest

As protests swelled in recent days, demonstrators rallying against corruption, unemployment and a lack of basic services also turned their rage toward Iraq’s political parties and Iran-backed militias.

Iran’s influence in Iraq has grown since it backed the militias who spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State. Tehran’s allies, including former militiamen, occupy powerful positions in Iraq’s government and in parliament. 

In Maysan province, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, at least 14 people were killed Saturday in violence involving Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful Iran-linked militia. Protesters were attempting to storm the group’s headquarters when gunmen fired on them.

The demonstrators, including supporters of Sadr, who commands a rival militia, staged a counterattack and wounded the local leader of the militia, witnesses said. They then reportedly followed the ambulance carrying the militia leader and his brother to a hospital and beat them to death there. Asaib Ahl al-Haq has vowed revenge. 

Demonstrators in Karbala also stormed the Iranian Consulate during the weekend and raised an Iraqi flag over it. Footage showed protesters tearing down a poster of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. 

In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the demonstrations had a more festival-type atmosphere, despite the repeated attacks by security forces. 

Students from elementary schools to universities joined the demonstrations in the capital over the weekend, many wearing their school uniforms. Restaurants delivered free food to the protesters, and barbers gave haircuts to those camped out in the square. Medical volunteers treated injured protesters, and clerics arrived to show support.

All the while, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators. 

“Iraqi authorities must immediately rein in security forces to prevent further bloodshed,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East research director, said in a statement. 

Cunningham reported from Istanbul.

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