Iraqis defy crackdown, hold massive protests
Baghdad — Tens of thousands of Iraqis massed in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Friday in the biggest demonstrations since anti-government protests erupted a month ago, defying security forces that have killed scores of people and harshly criticizing Iran’s involvement in the country’s affairs.
The square and the wide boulevards leading into it were packed with flag-waving protesters, as security forces reinforced barricades on two bridges leading to the heavily-fortified Green Zone, the seat of government. The protesters want sweeping change to the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which they blame for widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
At least 255 people have been killed in two major waves of protests in the past month, including five who died Friday of wounds sustained earlier, according to security and medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters. At least 350 people were wounded Friday as security forces fired tear gas grenades and rubber bullets to drive people back from the bridges.
Many protesters directed their rage at Iran, which emerged as a major power broker after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and has close ties to powerful political parties and state-backed militias that were mobilized to battle the Islamic State group but have now become an imposing political faction.
Videos circulated online of a group of protesters holding a poster showing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the head of its elite Quds force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, with their faces crossed out. The video, which showed protesters beating the poster with their shoes, appeared to have been filmed Thursday in Tahrir Square. On Friday, protesters marched over an Iranian flag painted on the pavement with a swastika added to it.
This month’s protests in Iraq and similar demonstrations in Lebanon are fueled by local grievances and mainly directed at the political elite.