UN says ‘this must stop’ after Iraqi protest violence kills nearly 100

BAGHDAD The United Nations urged Saturday an end

to violence in Iraq, after five days of anti government rallies marred by the

killing of nearly 100 people, mainly protesters.

The demonstrations which have evolved from initial demands for

employment and better services to the fall of the government carried on

into the night in various neighbourhoods of Baghdad and southern Iraq, as

authorities struggled to agree a response.

Security forces broke up a mass rally in the east of Baghdad, where

protesters faced volleys of tear gas and live rounds fired in their

direction, witnesses said.

Five days of reported deaths and injuries: this must stop, said the

United Nations' top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert.

She described the violence as a senseless loss of life and said those

behind it must be held accountable.

The authorities accused unidentified snipers of shooting into the crowd and

said they were searching residential neighbourhoods for those responsible.

At least 99 people have died and nearly 4,000 wounded since protests began

in the capital on Tuesday before spreading to the south of the country,

according to the Iraqi parliament's human rights commission.

The mainly young, male protesters have insisted their movement is not

linked to any party or religious establishment and have scoffed at recent

overtures by politicians.

On Saturday, demonstrators in the southern city of Nasiriyah set fire to

the headquarters of six different political parties.

Thousands also descended on the governorate in the southern city of

Diwaniyah, where gunfire was unleashed into the air, AFP correspondents there

said.

Parliament's human rights commission said Saturday that most of those who

have died in the last five days fell in Baghdad, while 250 other people were

treated in the capital for sniper wounds.

We demand clarification from the Iraqi government on those wounded in

Baghdad by sniper fire, which is ongoing today, the commission said.

Parliamentary manoeuvring

Parliament had been due to meet at 1:00 pm (1000 GMT) but could not reach

quorum, after firebrand cleric Moqtada al Sadr's bloc of 54 lawmakers and

other factions boycotted the session.

The former militia leader threw his weight behind the demonstrations on

Friday with a call for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Sadr's movement has the power and organisation to bring large numbers of

supporters onto the streets, but at the risk of alienating many of those

whose protests in recent days have been based on rejecting all of Iraq's

feuding political factions.

Parliamentary speaker Mohammed al Halbusi had extended a hand to protesters

saying your voice is being heard.

But one protester said late Friday these men don't represent us.

We don't want parties anymore. We don't want anyone to speak in our name.

Iraq has a population of just under 40 million people, and is currently the

fifth largest oil producer and exporter worldwide, and the second largest

OPEC producer. Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, twice the overall

rate, according to the World Bank which adds that an estimated 22.5 percent

of the population was living in poverty in 2014.

The largely spontaneous protests have presented the biggest challenge yet

to the Iraqi premier, who came to power a year ago as a consensus candidate

promising reforms but whose response to protesters has been seen as tepid.

Abdel Mahdi should have come forward with decisive changes, like the

sacking of leading politicians accused of corruption, said Iraqi analyst

Sarmad al Bayati.

Authorities restricted access to Facebook and Whatsapp after anti

government demonstrations began on Tuesday, before ordering a total network

shutdown on Wednesday.

'Promised reforms'

Political and religious rifts run deep in Iraq, and protests are typically

called for by party or sect making the last five days exceptional, said

Fanar Haddad an expert at Singapore University's Middle East Institute.

This is the first time we hear people saying they want the downfall of the

regime, Haddad said.

Sadr, a former militia leader turned nationalist politician, demanded on

Friday that the government resign to clear the way for a fresh election

supervised by the United Nations. His bloc is the largest in parliament, and

his intervention sets the scene for a possible showdown with the speaker, who

has made his own bid to make political capital out of the protests.

Halbusi sought to allay protesters Saturday by announcing in a news

conference a long list of promised reforms over employment and social

welfare, but it was not clear he would succeed in appeasing the

demonstrators.

Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani used his weekly

Friday prayer sermon to urge authorities to heed the demands of

demonstrators, warning the protests could escalate unless clear steps are

taken immediately.

Source: Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS)