By Agence France-Presse
Iraq’s president called Monday for a “halt to escalation” after widespread protests that killed dozens, including an overnight rally in east Baghdad in which the military admitted using “excessive force”.
Demonstrations have rocked the capital and Iraq’s southern provinces since Tuesday, first demanding reforms to fight corruption and unemployment but ramping up to calls for a total overhaul of the country’s political system.
In a televised address, President Barham Saleh appealed for a “halt to escalation” and proposed a “national, all-encompassing and frank dialogue… without foreign interference” to chart a way out of the crisis.
“There is no legitimacy to any political process or system that does not work to achieve your demands,” Saleh said, addressing protesters.
The demonstrations are unprecedented in Iraq because of their apparent spontaneity and independence in a deeply politicised society.
But they have also been exceptionally deadly with more than 100 people killed and 6,000 wounded since Tuesday.
Witnesses have reported that security forces used tear gas and live rounds while authorities accused “unidentified snipers” of shooting at protesters and the police.
Saleh said those who attacked demonstrators and security forces were “enemies of the people” and denounced weekend raids on local and regional media stations.
His statement came hours after Iraq’s military admitted using “excessive force outside the rules of engagement” against a protest in the east Baghdad district of Sadr City.
An overnight rally there deteriorated into clashes that left 13 people dead, according to medics and security sources.
In videos distributed on social media, protesters could be seen ducking into streets littered with burning tyres as volleys of gunfire and suspected heavy weapons were heard.
But by Monday evening, in line with government orders, the military had been pulled out of Sadr City and a few police officers could be seen on the edges of the neighbourhood, an AFP photographer there said.
– ‘Accountability’ –
Monday’s statement was the first time security forces acknowledged using disproportionate measures, a step cautiously welcomed by Amnesty International.
“The security forces’ admission of using excessive force is a first step that must be translated on the ground, to rein in the behaviour of security forces and the army,” it said in Arabic.
“The next step is accountability.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday urged for Iraqi health workers to be allowed to treat the wounded safely.
“The alternative is unthinkable for a population already weary and in need,” said Katharina Ritz, ICRC’s head of delegation in Iraq.
Sadr City, a densely populated, impoverished part of the capital, is a bastion of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr who has thrown his weight behind the protests by calling on Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s government to resign.
– Reform pledges –
But the embattled premier instead announced a series of reforms to create jobs, boost social welfare and oust corrupt officials.
He has accused “saboteurs” of infiltrating the protests, a claim echoed by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful network of mostly-Shiite, pro-Iran paramilitary units opposed to the US.
“We know who stands behind these protests. The plan to bring down the regime has failed,” its chief Faleh al-Fayyadh told journalists in Baghdad.
He said his forces would support actions against corrupt institutions but not “the fall of the regime”, a chant which has featured more prominently in the protests in recent days.
“Those who wanted to defame Iraq will be punished,” Fayyadh said, adding that his forces were “ready for any government order”.
His words echoed a statement earlier Monday by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who accused “enemies” of trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad.
“Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective,” Khamenei was quoted as saying on his office’s Twitter account.
Iran has urged its citizens planning to take part in a major Shiite pilgrimage in Iraq to delay their travel into the country over the violence.
Baghdad has close but complicated ties with Tehran, which enjoys significant influence among its Shiite political groups, but is also an ally of Washington.
On Monday, Abdel Mahdi said he discussed the recent events and reform plans in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, without providing further details.
And he said he met on Monday with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.