Iraq’s military yesterday admitted for the first time it had used “excessive force” in nearly a week of deadly protests, as paramilitary units said they were ready to back the government.
More than 100 people have been killed and several thousand wounded in demonstrations increasingly spiraling into violence, with witnesses reporting security forces using water cannons, tear gas and live rounds.
A mass protest on Sunday evening in Sadr City in east Baghdad led to clashes that medics and security forces said left 13 people dead.
In videos distributed on social media, protesters could be seen ducking into streets littered with burning tires as a volley of gunfire and suspected heavy weapons were heard.
“Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts,” the military said.
It said Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi had ordered those forces to be replaced with federal police units and the intelligence services to open an investigation into the incident.
It was the first time since protests broke out that security forces acknowledged using disproportionate measures, after the prime minister insisted they had been acting “within international standards” in dealing with demonstrations.
Across Baghdad yesterday as in several southern cities, streets were reopening and no protests could be seen, although demonstrators typically gather in the late evening.
Sadr City, a densely populated, impoverished part of the capital, is a bastion of famed firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has thrown his weight behind the protests by calling on Abdel Mahdi’s government to resign.
However, the prime minister instead announced a series of reforms to create jobs, boost social welfare and oust corrupt officials.
Abdel Mahdi has accused “saboteurs” of infiltrating the protests, a claim echoed by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful network of mostly-Shiite, pro-Iran paramilitary units.
“We know who stands behind these protests. The plan to bring down the regime has failed,” its leader Faleh al-Fayyadh told journalists in Baghdad.
He said his forces would support actions against corrupt institutions, but not “the fall of the regime,” a chant which has featured more prominently in the protests in recent days.
“Those who wanted to defame Iraq will be punished,” Fayyadh said, adding that his forces were “ready for any government order.”
His words echoed a statement earlier yesterday by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who accused “enemies” of trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad.
“Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective,” Khamenei was quoted as saying on his office’s Twitter account.
However, Iran has urged its citizens planning to take part in a major Shiite pilgrimage in Iraq to delay their travel into the country over the violence.
Abdel Mahdi also said yesterday that he discussed the recent events and reform plans in a telephone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, without providing further details.
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