Protester killed as Iraq police struggle to stem unrest

Smoke rises from burning tires ignited by Iraqi demonstrators to block a road during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi police fought running street battles with anti-government demonstrators on Tuesday, firing tear and rubber bullets to try to disperse stone-throwing youths pressing for an overhaul of a political system they see as deeply corrupt.

One protester was killed in Baghdad while another succumbed to a bullet wound sustained on Monday in Baquba city, medical sources said, adding at least 50 demonstrators were wounded.

Violent clashes erupted for a third straight day in Baghdad’s Tayaran Square and in other southern cities including Basra and the holy Shi’ite cities of Kerbala and Najaf, with protesters hurling stones and petrol bombs at police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

“Our protests is peaceful. We call for the resignation of the government and an independent prime minister who does not belong to any party,” said a hooded protester in Baghdad, who declined to give his name.

Anti-government unrest has crippled Iraq since Oct. 1, with protesters demanding an end to what they say is deeply-rooted corruption and a ruling elite that has controlled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. More than 450 people have been killed.

Iraqi President Barham Salih is expected to appoint a new premier this week, state media reported, to replace outgoing Adel Abdul Mahdi who was forced out by the demonstrations.

Salih is choosing between three Iraqi politicians to lead a transitional government that would ease popular anger, State TV reported, adding the decision could come as soon as Tuesday.

Tuesday’s unrest followed violent gatherings on Monday that killed six Iraqis, including two police officers, and wounded scores across the country.

Protests resumed over the weekend after a lull of several weeks as demonstrators sought to keep up momentum after attention turned to the threat of a U.S.-Iran conflict following Washington’s killing of Tehran’s top general in an air strike inside Iraq.

The killing of Qassem Soleimani, to which Tehran responded with a ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi military bases, has highlighted the influence of some foreign powers in Iraq, especially Iran and the United States.

Three Katyusha rockets fell inside the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone which houses government buildings and foreign missions, police sources said. The rockets were launched from Zafaraniyah district outside Baghdad, the sources said, adding that two landed near the U.S. embassy.