Iraqi protesters clash with security forces, defy top cleric

Samya Kullab
Associated Press

Baghdad – One protester was killed by security forces after hundreds of anti-government protesters flooded the streets of Iraq’s capital and southern provinces on Sunday, defying a powerful Iraqi religious leader who recently withdrew his support from the popular movement.

Separately, five Katyusha rockets crashed into a riverbank near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone without causing any injuries or serious damages, a statement from U.S. Joint Operations Command said. One rocket landed inside the embassy walls, an Iraqi security official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

An anti-government protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.

It is the third such attack this month and the perpetrators were not immediately known.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the rocket attack that targeted the U.S. Embassy. In a statement, he asserted Iraq’s commitment to “protecting all diplomatic missions.”

Security forces fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse the crowds from the capital’s Khilani Square, medical and security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. One protester was killed and six wounded after security forces fired live rounds in nearby Wathba Square later in the evening.

At least 28 demonstrators were reported wounded by Iraqi security forces in the first hours of Sunday’s street rallies.

Protesters set fire to close a street during clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters near Baghdad's Khilani square, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.

The mass protests started in October over widespread government corruption and a lack of public services and jobs. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping changes to Iraq’s political system that was imposed after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Iraqi security forces have responded harshly. At least 500 protesters have been killed since the unrest began.

Iraq also has been roiled by U.S.-Iran tensions that threatened a regional war after an American drone strike this month killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad.

The U.S. attack pushed the Shiite cleric and political leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, to turn his influence toward demanding an American troop withdrawal and holding an anti-U.S. rally.

Security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters during clashes in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.

Analysts said al-Sadr, who often mobilizes his followers on the street to buttress his political influence, was using the anti-U.S. protest he staged as leverage in political negotiations among Iraq’s elites to select the next premier.

Al-Sadr has long been an unpredictable maverick in Iraqi politics, and is the only Shiite leader who has challenged both Iran and the U.S.