Fresh Baghdad unrest, Washington calls for early vote in Iraq
Washington has called on Iraqi authorities to hold early election in the Arab country as fresh wave of unrest hits the capital of Baghdad taking more toll among anti-government protesters hijacked by foreign-backed agents.
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In an statement issued Sunday, the White House asked the Iraqi government "to halt the violence against protesters and fulfill President [Barham] Saleh's promise to pass electoral reform and hold early elections."
"The United States is seriously concerned by continued attacks against protesters, civic activists, and the media, as well as restrictions on internet access, in Iraq," it said.
The US has been openly backing protesters in Iraq since they flooded the streets for the first time in early October to vent their anger over corruption and poor living conditions in one of the world's wealthiest countries in terms of energy resources.
However, the relatively peaceful movement soon turned violent as armed elements opened fire on police and protesters alike and attempted to infiltrate the heavily-protected Green Zone in the capital Baghdad, which is home to the government as well as foreign diplomatic missions.
The first wave of the protests killed more than 150 people before stopping temporarily during the Arba'een processions for Shia Muslims' third imam, Imam Hussein.
The second wave, however, began late last month with even more violence with demonstrators calling on the entire government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to step down.
According to the Iraqi Parliament's human rights committee, so far 319 people, including demonstrators and security forces, have been killed in the violence.
Iraqi officials have on several occasions arrested armed elements and snipers who indiscriminately killed officers and protesters.
They have also reprimanded soldiers who resorted to excessive force in dealing with the unrest.
Protests continued in Iraq on Sunday, a day after police and security forces ended blockades on three key bridges that led to the Green Zone.
More than 20 people were injured in clashes between police and demonstrators. One person died in hospital from wounds sustained the previous day in the same area, police confirmed.
At least three people were shot dead in the southern city of Nassiriya on Sunday, while more than 100 others were wounded.
Police said late Sunday that a car had exploded in an area under the control of security forces, setting fire to several other vehicles parked next to it.
The protests have ended a brief period of relative calm in Iraq, as the war-weary Arab country basked in its historic victory against foreign-backed terrorists of Daesh.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that certain countries were stirring up unrest in Iraq. "We can guess who is behind the unrest in Iraq,” he said.
"What makes us worry about the problems of people who are thousands or tens of thousands of kilometers away from our country is Islam as a common denominator and the consciousness of being an Ummah,” Erdogan said.
The Turkish president speculated that those behind Iraq’s unrest probably planned to spread the protests into Iran, apparently meaning Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Abdul-Mahdi's government has taken some steps in its efforts to quell the unrest, including arranging cash handouts to the poor and creating job opportunities for college graduates.
However, the demonstrators are now saying that they won't back down unless the current government resigns.
The immense pressure on Abdul-Mahdi to resign has been partially attributed by some experts to Washington, which sees the prime minister as a major hurdle to its continued military presence in the Arab country.
When last month US President Donald Trump announced that he would take US forces out of northern Syria and station them in Iraq, Abdul-Mahdi warned that the presence was unauthorized and the soldiers would be given a limited stay until they headed back to their own country.
Abdul-Mahdi also maintains close ties with Iran, which is a contributing factor to the US pressure for his resignation.
President Salih has already announced that Abdul-Mahdi would resign once a new election law comes to effect and his replacement is elected.
The embattled prime minister, who is under pressure from powerful Shia Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as powerful militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to fulfill protesters' demands, has recently pledged more changes such as electoral reform.
Iraqi leaders meeting in Baghdad on Sunday agreed that electoral reform could encourage the youth to take on a more active role in politics and bring more color to a political scene that has been dominated by a number of parties since 2003.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) unveiled its new proposal to resolve the ongoing situation.
The proposal details a set of principle and measures that are designed to address the demands of the protesters in a timely manner.
"The risk of 'spoilers' hijacking peaceful demonstrations is increasing and potentially derailing any attempt at genuine change," the UNAMI said. "Time is therefore of the essence, as are tangible results."
The principles included protecting all lives, guaranteeing the right to peaceful protests, practicing maximum restraint in dealing with protests and holding perpetrators accountable.
The proposal also invited both sides to act within the framework of the law in all matters, including in dealing with public and private properties.
The measures, which the UNAMI said should be implemented in less than a week, included protecting "peaceful demonstrators" by releasing them from detention according to law and investigating possible abductions.
The immediate measures also included issuing a public call "on all regional and international parties not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs and respecting its sovereignty."
Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a call on Iraqi authorities to stop what it called an "unlawful use of lethal force."
“Iraqi authorities must immediately order an end to this relentless, unlawful use of lethal force,” Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said Sunday.
The unrest in Iraq is one of the biggest and most complicated challenges the current ruling elite has been faced with since taking over after the 2003 US invasion of the country, which has suffered decades of war, sanctions and foreign-backed militancy.