Seven dead as Iraqi police clash with protestors

Moqtada al-Sadr inspires anti-corruption movement

BAGHDAD -Seven people were killed in
clashes that erupted in central Baghdad on Saturday between the security forces
and protesters demanding reforms to Iraq's electoral system, police said.

The violence was the deadliest to break
out at a protest since a wave of demonstrations demanding better services and
accusing Iraq's political class of corruption and nepotism began in 2015.
Police fired tear gas and rubber-coated
bullets at the crowd when some protesters, most of them supporters of cleric
Moqtada al-Sadr, tried to force a cordon and reach Baghdad's fortified Green
Zone.
"There were seven dead as a result of
the violence. Two of them are from the security forces and the other five are
protesters," a police colonel told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said more than 200 were hurt in the
chaos. Most were protesters suffering from tear gas inhalation, but at least 11
had more serious injuries caused by bullets and tear gas canisters.
Protesters initially gathered peacefully
on Tahrir square to demand a change in the electoral law and the replacement of
the electoral commission ahead of provincial polls due in September.
"The demonstrators tried to cross
Jumhuriya bridge, the security forces fired tear gas to stop them but they
insisted," a senior police official said.
Sadr supporters accusing Iraq's political
class of corruption and nepotism broke into the so-called Green Zone twice in
2016, storming the prime minister's office and the parliament building.
- Pressure on Abadi -
Last year's protest movement was halted
when tens of thousands of forces launched Iraq's largest military operation in
years four months ago to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group.
However, last month's announcement that
elections would take place in September has brought the political agenda back
to the fore, and Sadr's movement has vowed to increase the pressure again.
Saturday's demonstrators received a de
facto green light to escalate their protest in the shape of a statement from
the Najaf-based Sadr.
"If you want to approach the gates of
the Green Zone to affirm your demands and make them heard to those on the other
side of the fence... you can," he said.
Sadr encouraged the protesters to remain
there until sunset but warned them against attempting to break into the
fortified area.
The protesters met fierce resistance from
the security forces and never made it across the Tigris River running between
Tahrir Square and the Green Zone.
But Sadr, a mercurial Shiite who once led
a rebellion against US occupation but has more recently spearheaded an
anti-corruption protest movement, urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi not to
turn a deaf ear.
"I urge him to deliver those reforms
immediately, listen to the voice of the people and remove the corrupt,"
the statement said.
He later appealed for restraint and the
demonstrators dispersed.
- Partisan commissioners -
Abadi said the violence would be
investigated and those responsible for it prosecuted.
"Our action will get tougher, even if
that involves physically taking over the commission," Abu Haidar, a
protester wearing traditional Arab dress, told AFP before the rally turned
violent.
The electoral commission issued a
statement asking for protection from the premier's office and the international
community.
A smaller group of protesters had already
demonstrated near the Green Zone on Wednesday, while hundreds also gathered in
several southern cities on Friday.
Their two main demands are for the members
of the electoral commission to be replaced on the grounds that they are all
affiliated to political parties and that the body supervising nationwide
ballots was therefore anything but independent.
They also want the electoral law to be
amended to give wider representation to smaller parties in the country's
elected bodies.
Sinan al-Azzawi, a popular Iraqi actor,
was among those who addressed the protest before the violence broke out.
Politicians "are profiteers and their
only loyalty is to the countries they used to live in but not to Iraq", he
said, referring to the Saddam-era exile of many of the country's current
leaders.
"Those politicians, they created an
electoral commission based on sectarian quotas. It has nine commissioners who
belong to political entities... It's not independent," he said.