Anti-government protests resume in Iraq after unmet demands

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Protesters have gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to mark one year since a second wave of anti-government protests erupted and gripped Iraq.

Iraqi security forces fired water cannon and tear gas at the protesters during Sunday’s demonstrations to prevent them crossing fences on a bridge leading towards government buildings.

The rallies renewed calls from early October last year, which saw the start of Iraq’s biggest anti-government protest movement since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, with demonstrations in the capital Baghdad and Iraq’s mainly Shia south demanding basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.

“Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for you Iraq,” chanted hundreds of protesters as they marched through the capital’s Tahrir Square, epicentre of the protest movement.

The demonstrations became a nationwide, decentralised movement that called a complete overhaul of the political system and slammed a political class protesters saw as more loyal to Iran and the US than to Iraqi citizens.

“Today’s an important day as it marks a year since October 25, 2019 and our revolution for which we gave our blood and sacrificed many martyrs,” Muntather Mahdi, a 24-year-old protester, told Al Jazeera.

“On the top of our demands is holding the killers and kidnappers accountable. Justice must be achieved and we’ll keep coming until we see that,” said Mahdi, who came from the province of Dhi Qar.

Large groups of protesters also gathered in other southern provinces including Nasiriya, Babylon, Wasit, and Basra, holding posters and chanting anti-government slogans.

Protesters from various parts of Iraq started making their way to the capital last night for Sunday’s protests.

While many managed to enter Baghdad and reach Tahrir Square, some riding cars and other vehicles were prevented by security forces, according to activists and journalists.

Some planned to stay in Tahrir Square, while others assembled at the entrances of the heavily fortified Green Zone – where the seat of Iraq’s government and the US embassy are located – where security forces had been deployed since Saturday night.

Speaking from Allawi Square near the Green Zone, Ali Shimmari, a 26-year-old protester who made his way from the eastern governorate of Wasit in the morning, said he was determined to enter in spite of tensions between protesters and security forces being on the rise.

“Today is a continuation of what we started last year,” Shimmari told Al Jazeera.

“Our demands have not been met. We will continue our protests until we see the change we want,” he added, referring to demands including wholesale changes to the political class and holding accountable those who had attacked protesters in the demonstrations that erupted last year.

Earlier, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had given strict orders to security forces to avoid the use of live ammunition and called on demonstrations to remain peaceful.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand the removal of Iraq’s political elite, who they accused of incompetence, corruption and loyalty to Iran.

Some 600 protesters were killed and thousands of other wounded in clashes before the movement lost momentum and came to halt amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The protests forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. He was succeeded by al-Kadhimi, who promised to integrate protesters’ demands into his government’s plans.

But on the ground, little has been achieved. The new government has yet to deliver major reforms for country, including new elections, economic development, basic services and employment opportunities. The World Bank says one in three young people is unemployed.

Iraq has also witnessed a string of assassinations and forced disappearances of journalists and political activists since October last year.

Al-Kadhimi promised to investigate the killings, but no one has been held accountable yet.

“The fact that protests have continued for over a year and are being renewed today shows the pressure is still on the ruling elite and that no significant reforms have yet been achieved which could placate demonstrators,” said independent Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad.

“The size of protests has not reached the numbers from a year ago but given that the economic situation has detoriorated and trust in the political system continues to fall, it will be very likely that protests will gain momentum.”

Independent Iraqi analyst Zeidon Alkinani agreed: “There was a lot of concerns with the momentum not being as significant. The numbers and resilience today reflected the opposite.”

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