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Iraq military admits 'excessive force' used in deadly protests

By AFP - Oct 07,2019 - Last updated at Oct 07,2019

Iraqi demonstrators gesture next to a tyre fire during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment, in Baghdad on October 5 (AFP photo)

BAGHDAD — Iraq's military admitted for the first time Monday it used "excessive force" in deadly protests, a move Amnesty International said must lead to accountability for more than 100 killed over the last week. 

Demonstrations across Baghdad and the south have spiralled into violence over the last week, with witnesses reporting security forces using water cannons, tear gas and live rounds and authorities saying "unidentified snipers" have shot at protesters and police.

On Sunday evening, a mass protest in Sadr City in east Baghdad led to clashes that medics and security forces said left 13 people dead.

In videos distributed on social media, protesters could be seen ducking into streets littered with burning tyres as a volley of gunfire and suspected heavy weapons were heard. 

"Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts," the military said.

It said Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi had ordered those forces to be replaced with federal police units and the intelligence services to open an investigation into the incident.

It was the first time since protests broke out that security forces acknowledged using disproportionate measures, a move cautiously welcomed by Amnesty International on Monday. 

"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."

More than 100 people have been killed and 6,000 wounded across the country since protests broke out Tuesday, according to the interior ministry. 

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.

By Monday evening, 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, with no protests there or in other typical gathering spots. 

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 Abdel Mahdi’s government to resign.

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 on 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.

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