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At least two dead in Baghdad protests over corruption and unemployment

Anger simmers in the Iraqi capital as popular military commander is demoted
Men carry away a protester injured by riot police during a demonstration against state corruption and poor services (AFP)

At least two people have been killed as demonstrations rocked the Iraqi capital Baghdad, sparked by discontent over corruption, high unemployment and the demotion of a popular military commander.

Thousands of people descended on Baghdad's Tahrir Square before being dispersed by riot police. They later regrouped as police struggled to quell the demonstrations, according to local media.

Alhurra TV reported that at least one person had been killed after police began using live ammunition in addition to firing tear gas.

Later on Tuesday, police sources in the southern city of Nassiriya said a second protester had been shot dead, without providing further details, Reuters news agency reported. 

At least 200 people have been injured, 40 of whom are security forces, a government statement and a health ministry spokesman said, according to Reuters.

During the protests, some 3,000 demonstrators tried to cross a bridge leading into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies.

Reuters reporters saw several people with blood covering their faces and witnessed ambulances rushing in to transport the wounded.

Demonstrators were protesting over a lack of jobs, poor services and widespread corruption, but a number also carried portraits of Lt Gen Abdulwahab al-Saadi, whose demotion from head of the elite Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) has provoked widespread anger in the country.

Protesters in Baghdad (Mercadier Sylvain)
Protesters in Baghdad (Mercadier Sylvain)

“We don't want this corrupt government," chanted protesters. “All are corrupt equally!"

According to official figures, since 2004 almost $450bn of public funds have vanished into the pockets of politicians and businessmen.

Iraq is currently ranked as the world's 12th most corrupt country according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

In addition, youth unemployment in Iraq is running at around 25 percent, according to the World Bank, in a country where the vast majority of the population is under 30.

The summer of 2018 saw widespread demonstrations against corruption, lack of services and unemployment, largely in the south of the country.

Tuesday's protests, however, mark the largest to take place so far under the premiership of Adel Abdul Mahdi, who took power in October 2018.

"The government is fucking stupid. We are not given any rights," said Oussama Walid, a protester from the al-Washash neighbourhood, speaking to Middle East Eye on Tuesday.

"[The media] must explain what’s going on here to the world to have a change. Try to explain, help us, help the people."

Karar Jassem, from the Karrada neighbourhood, cited protests by graduates earlier in September as an inspiration.

'We want [Abdulwahab] Saadi to be appointed prime minister of the government'

- Salam al-Massudi, protester

"In Iraq, there are collaborators with foreign countries that have more rights than the regular citizens," he explained.

"Graduates of higher education were beaten and sprayed with hot water canons last week, just for asking for their rights. Rights have been stripped out of the citizens between 2003 and now."

Anger over the failure of subsequent governments to live up to the promises of the post-Saddam Hussein era have seen a greater build-up of anger in recent years.

Following the declared defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2019, many Iraqis said they expected more.

Abd al-Salam Shaker, missing one leg and sitting in a wheelchair in the heart of the protests, accused the government of being "a bunch of thieves".

Although the problems facing Iraqis have existed for years, this week's protests - which also took place in northern and southern Iraq - appear to have been sparked by the decision to remove Saadi.

Saadi is widely popular in Iraq for heading the CTS, which was at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Seen as a non-corrupt and non-sectarian Iraqi nationalist, Saadi - a Shia - commanded support from across Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.

Some analysts have argued that Saadi's willingness to crack down on vested interests and corruption within the Iraqi security forces earned him the ire of powerful figures, who saw his transfer to the defence ministry over the weekend.

Insult was added to injury after a statue of Saadi built in Mosul was taken down by officials on Monday, never having been unveiled.

"If he belonged to a particular political party, if his picture was attached to the picture of [Iran's Supreme Leader] Khamenei, no one would dare to touch it. But because he is independent, the statue was removed," said Mohammed al-Issawi, a protester from the city of Najaf, clutching a picture of Saadi.

Another protester, who did not want to be identified, said he was just waiting for Saadi to come and "lead the protests".

"Our aim is to push for a powerful leader. I myself believe that he can lead us. I’m sure that he’s interested to come forward, but he needs the people to show they are behind him," he said.

Salam al-Massudi, another protester, went further.

"We want Saadi to be appointed prime minister of the government," he said.

Abdul Mahdi has criticised the resistance to Saadi's transfer, which the officer has described as an "insult".

“An officer does not choose his position, but carries out commands," Abdul Mahdi said on Sunday.

He also accused Saadi of visiting foreign embassies to shore up support for his position.

"Officers frequenting embassies is unacceptable and impossible. The military cannot be left to personal interests," he said.