At least 13 wounded in violence in Baghdad, officials say

At least 13 wounded in violence in Baghdad, officials say

BAGHDAD-The Associated Press
At least 13 wounded in violence in Baghdad, officials say

A protester grabs a tear gas canister fired by security forces during clashes in central Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 20, 2020. (AP Photo)

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and live rounds during clashes with anti-government protesters overnight and on Jan. 20 morning in Baghdad, wounding at least 13 demonstrators and prompting authorities to close key streets and thoroughfares leading to the city center, officials said.

The violence is the latest since protests in Iraq reignited last week after a brief lull amid soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran following a U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month.

Anti-government protests have similarly resumed in Lebanon after a brief hiatus, entering a new, violent phase as anger against a worsening economic crisis and politicians' inaction mounts. Hundreds of people were injured over the weekend as security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes in downtown Beirut.

Hundreds wounded in weekend of Lebanon clashes
Hundreds wounded in weekend of Lebanon clashes

In Baghdad, the tear gas and live rounds were fired near Sinak Bridge and also the nearby Tayaran Square, which have been the scene of violence in recent days, medical and security officials said.

As smoke rose over the city from the tear gas, tuk-tuks ferried the injured to hospitals.

A statement from the Baghdad Operations Command said fourteen officers were wounded by a group of rock-throwing "inciters of violence" while trying to secure the entrance to Tahrir square, the epicenter of the protest movement.

"Despite these actions, our forces continued to exercise restraint and follow up on the security duties assigned to them," said the statement.

A security official said at least nine arrests have been made so far after the National Security Council authorized security forces to arrest demonstrators seen blocking main thoroughfares and roundabouts.

The U.N. envoy to Iraq, meanwhile, urged Iraqi political elites to resume pushing for reforms and for protests to remain peaceful.

"Any steps taken so far to address the people's concerns will remain hollow, if they are not completed," said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert in a statement issued by the U.N. "Violent suppression of peaceful protesters is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs. Nothing is more damaging than a climate of fear."

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, protesters blocked the highway linking the city to the southern oil-rich province of Basra. At least six protesters were wounded when an unknown gunman fired at them from a speeding car, a medical official said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.

On Jan. 19, protesters in Baghdad and southern Iraq burned tires, blocking main streets. Clashes in Baghdad wounded at least 27 people. Iraqi activists gave the government a week's deadline to act on their demands for sweeping political reforms or said they would up the pressure with new demonstrations.

The uprising began on Oct. 1 when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, poor public services and a scarcity of jobs. Protesters are demanding an end to Iraq's sectarian political system, alongside early elections and the stepping aside of its ruling elite.

The mass protest movement had several successes before the U.S. strike diverted public attention. In December, pressure from demonstrations lead Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's more revered Shiite cleric, to withdraw support for the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, prompting the prime minister's resignation.

Later that month, lawmakers passed a key new electoral law that would give the people more say in who's elected to office.

But bickering between rival political factions has so far set back talks over the selection of a new premier. Abdul-Mahdi's ascension was the product of a provisional agreement between rival blocs Saeroon, lead by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, lead by Hadi al-Ameri.

Since the protests first erupted in October, at least 500 have died under fire from security forces.