Portland police break up protest with smoke grenades and pepper balls; 19 arrested

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Protests flared again in Portland overnight on Monday as demonstrators clashed with police on the streets of the city which after months of sometimes violent confrontations has become a focal point of the U.S. presidential race.

Police used smoke grenades and pepper balls to control the crowd of protesters. Police acknowledged in a statement that officers “deployed some crowd control munitions” and said 19 people were arrested, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct and interfering with police.

About 200-300 people gathered in the downtown area to march to the apartment of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to demand his resignation. They were seen setting fire to wooden benches and plastic trash bins along the march.

Police declared the gathering unlawful and later upgraded it to a riot after protesters set fire in an apartment building. The area was secured to allow firefighters to respond to the situation, police said.

Portland has seen nightly protests since the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis on May 25. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested since the protests began.

In recent weeks, tensions between right- and left-wing groups in the city have roiled downtown.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump have converged on the city as counter demonstrators, including one man who was fatally shot on Saturday night. Nobody has been charged in that case as police review poor-quality video of the incident.

State police and officers from neighboring suburbs were sent to Portland on Monday following the shooting.

(Additional reporting by Ann Maria Shibu in Bengaluru; writing by Kanishka Singh, editing by Angus MacSwan and Chizu Nomiyama)

‘I Have A Dream’: New march on Washington to mark fraught anniversary of King’s speech

By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of people were expected to march in Washington, D.C. on Friday to denounce racism, protest police brutality and commemorate the anniversary of the march in 1963 where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In his historic and often-repeated speech, King envisioned a time his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Its 57th anniversary comes at the end of a summer of racial unrest and nationwide protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Earlier this week, protests seized Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police officers shot another African-American man, Jacob Blake, multiple times in front of his young children while his back was turned. Blake survived the shooting, but has been paralyzed, his lawyers told reporters earlier this week.

Friday’s protest, called “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks,” was planned in the wake of Floyd’s death by civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer representing Blake and Floyd’s family, will speak, as will Sharpton, members of Floyd’s family, and King’s son, Martin Luther King III, among others.

After speeches at the Lincoln Memorial, participants will walk to the Martin Luther King memorial about a half mile away.

This summer’s uprisings drew parallels to those seen in 1968, after King’s own murder, five years after his famous speech.

The march also comes as Black people suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed about 180,000 Americans. Blacks have been more likely to be sickened and die from the virus and to lose jobs from the economic fallout.

Washington requires people coming from so-called coronavirus high-risk states, which currently includes both Wisconsin and Minnesota, to quarantine for 14 days when visiting the district.

Organizers say they are taking the pandemic into account by restricting access to buses from those states, distributing masks and checking temperatures. There will also be free COVID-19 testing provided at the event.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, who received national attention when the district painted “Black Lives Matter” on the street steps away from the White House, has warned attendees that it may be difficult to socially distance during the march.

In addition to the live march, there will be a virtual commemoration featuring Reverend William Barber, a prominent civil rights activist and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. It will also include civil rights activists, politicians, artists and entertainers.

Kerrigan Williams, a founder of Freedom Fighters DC, said the group was organizing its own march on Friday after the March on Washington to promote a more radical agenda that includes replacing police departments with other public safety systems.

She said the group believes “the march on Washington is too reformist and performative for our taste.”

Separately, a wing of the Movement for Black Lives, a network of Black activists and organizations, has scheduled the “Black National Convention” on Friday night, following national conventions by the Democratic and Republican parties over the past two weeks.

The three-hour live streamed convention, which has been in the works since last fall, will feature about 100 Black activists and discussions about criminal justice and capitalism, said Jessica Byrd, an organizer for the event.

“We feel like it’s going to be a Black political Homecoming weekend,” she said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Heather Timmons and David Gregorio)

Belarus jails two opposition leaders; teachers head rally of thousands

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) – Belarus jailed two opposition leaders for 10 days on Tuesday as the government pursued a crackdown on the few figures still at large, while schoolteachers led a new protest of thousands against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Despite most major opposition figures being in jail or exile, Lukashenko has so far failed to put down protests against his 26-year-old rule, more than two weeks after an election his opponents say was rigged.

Olga Kovalkova and Siarhei Dyleuski were brought to separate courts where they were each jailed for 10 days. Kovalkova is the main representative still in Belarus of opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Dyleuski has led strikes at Minsk’s flagship tractor factory.

Both are senior figures in an opposition Coordination Council, set up last week with the self-described aim of negotiating with the authorities. They were arrested on Monday.

Lukashenko has accused the new council of attempting to seize power, and prosecutors have launched a criminal case.

In the latest protest, thousands gathered on Tuesday at the ministry of education to demonstrate against a threat by Lukashenko to fire any schoolteachers who do not support his government. Rallies have typically attracted thousands during the week, swelling to tens of thousands on weekends.

“I have come so that teachers are not afraid, so that their voice can be heard, so that they can work even if they have a different view from the authorities,” said a literature teacher who gave her name as Svetlana.

Lukashenko has denied election cheating. He has called the protesters “rats” and says they are funded from abroad.

His posturing has grown steadily more confrontational: in recent days he has been pictured on state television with a Kalashnikov rifle and tactical vest. Yet so far, a long-standing threat of a decisive police operation to clear the streets has yet to materialize.

Another opposition council member, Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and head of the main state drama theater, was questioned by investigators on Tuesday but not arrested. He emerged saying he would go back to work and the council’s activities were not illegal.

The council includes dozens of figures representing broad swathes of society. Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich has been summoned for questioning on Wednesday.

“The intimidation will not work. We will not relent,” candidate Tsikhanouskaya said in a video link with the European Parliament. “We demand all political prisoners freed. We demand to stop the violence and intimidation by the authorities.”

OPPOSITION

Tsikhanouskaya, 37, fled to Lithuania after the election her supporters say she won. A political novice, she emerged as the consensus opposition candidate after better-known figures were barred from standing, including her jailed activist husband.

Belarus is the closest ally to Russia of all former Soviet republics, and Lukashenko’s fate is widely seen as in the hands of the Kremlin, which must decide whether to stick with him as his authority has ebbed.

There are signs Moscow still backs him. Russia has sent journalists to staff Belarus state TV after workers quit in protest against what they described as orders to broadcast propaganda. Nevertheless, Lukashenko is seen in Moscow as a truculent and erratic ally, with a strained personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin.

The West has had to balance its sympathy for a nascent Belarusian pro-democracy movement with its concern that strong support would trigger a Russian-backed crackdown.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun was due in Moscow for talks on Tuesday after meeting Tsikhanouskaya on Monday in Lithuania.

The crisis also threatens to hurt the finances of a country with only limited foreign currency reserves. The Belarus rouble fell to a new low against the euro, and there have been queues at exchange points as Belarusians try to buy hard currency.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Militia at violent New Mexico protest linked to white supremacy, domestic terror: mayor

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Members of a heavily armed New Mexico militia blamed for sparking violence at a protest where a demonstrator was shot are trying to “prop up” white supremacy and may be connected to domestic terrorism, Albuquerque’s mayor said on Tuesday.

The peaceful protest calling for the removal of an Albuquerque statue of a Spanish conquistador turned violent on Monday after members of the New Mexico Civil Guard militia tried to keep demonstrators away from it, Albuquerque Police Commander Art Sanchez told a news briefing.

Among counter-protestors defending the statue was Steven Baca, 31, caught on video throwing a woman to the ground. Protesters then pursued him before he pulled out a handgun and shot a man, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told the briefing.

Baca was not immediately available for comment and police declined to say whether he was part of the militia.

But Keller said vigilantes, militias and other armed civilians had for weeks menaced local protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Protesters are demanding the removal of statues of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial rulers who killed and enslaved indigenous people.

“They have been there for quite some time attempting to prop up white supremacy, trying to intimidate those speaking out and they are armed with weapons,” Keller said of the groups, adding he was working with the FBI on their possible links to “domestic terrorism in our city.”

Keller said the sculpture of Juan de Oñate was removed on Tuesday for “public safety” after another statue of the colonial governor was taken down Monday in Alcalde, New Mexico.

Baca, a former city council candidate, was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for shooting Scott Williams, who was in critical condition, police said.

He won less than 6% of the votes in last year’s city council elections on a platform to encourage citizens to protect themselves with firearms, renegotiate federal restrictions on law enforcement and end sanctuary city policies.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Cushing)

Minneapolis city council pledges to disband police

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Minneapolis city council members pledged to abolish the police force whose officer knelt on the neck of a dying George Floyd, as the biggest civil rights protests in more than 50 years demanded a transformation of U.S. criminal justice.

Demonstrations have swept a country slowly emerging from the coronavirus lockdown in the two weeks since Floyd, an unarmed black man, 46, died after choking out the words “I can’t breathe” under the knee of a white police officer.

Trump said on Twitter he ordered the National Guard to start withdrawing from Washington D.C. “now that everything is under perfect control”.

Though there was violence in the early days, the protests have lately been overwhelmingly peaceful. They have deepened a political crisis for President Donald Trump, who repeatedly threatened to order active-duty troops onto the streets.

Huge weekend crowds gathered across the country and in Europe. The high-spirited atmosphere was marred late on Sunday when a man drove a car into a rally in Seattle and then shot and wounded a demonstrator who confronted him.

“I have cops in my family, I do believe in a police presence,” said Nikky Williams, a black Air Force veteran who marched in Washington on Sunday. “But I do think that reform has got to happen.”

The prospect that Minneapolis could abolish its police force altogether would have seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago. Nine members of the 13-person city council pledged on Sunday to do away with the police department in favor of a community-led safety model, though they provided little detail.

“A veto-proof majority of the MPLS City Council just publicly agreed that the Minneapolis Police Department is not reformable and that we’re going to end the current policing system,” Alondra Cano, a member of the Minneapolis council, said on Twitter.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters he would shift some funds out of the city’s vast police budget and reallocate it to youth and social services. He said he would take enforcement of rules on street vending out of the hands of police, accused of using the regulations to harass minorities.

Curfews were removed in New York and other major cities including Philadelphia and Chicago.

 

In the nation’s capital, a large and diverse gathering of protesters had packed streets near the White House, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” and “I can’t breathe.”

A newly-erected fence around the White House was decorated by protesters with signs, including some that read: “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.”

The “Black Lives Matter” protest slogan was also embraced on Sunday by Trump’s predecessor as Republican candidate for president, Senator Mitt Romney, who marched alongside evangelical Christians in Washington.

Romney told the Washington Post that he wanted to find “a way to end violence and brutality, and to make sure that people understand that black lives matter”.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama also addressed the protests in a YouTube speech for 2020 high school and college graduates. The demonstrations “speak to decades of inaction over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices in the broader criminal justice system,” Obama said.

“You don’t have to accept what was considered normal before,” he told the graduates. “You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it the world as it should be.”

 

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Andrea Shalal, Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, and Jonathan Allen and Sinead Carew in New York, and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Writing by Peter Graff, Brad Brooks and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Frank McGurty, Peter Cooney, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Tattersall)

Video shows police in Buffalo, New York, shoving 75-year-old to ground

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – Two Buffalo, New York, police officers were suspended without pay on Thursday after a video showed them shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd continued into their tenth night.

The video taken by a reporter from local public radio station WBFO and posted on its website and Twitter account shows the white-haired man approaching a line of officers in riot gear. One officer pushes him with a baton and a second one with his hand. The sound of a crack is heard and then blood trickles from the man’s head. The man, who is white, is not identified.

“I was deeply disturbed by the video,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said in a statement. “After days of peaceful protests and several meetings between myself, police leadership and members of the community, tonight’s event is disheartening.”

The incident drew widespread condemnation on social media as protesters returned to the streets of several U.S. cities to demonstrate against police brutality.

Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after former police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.

The video in Buffalo shows the majority of the officers march past after the man falls, though the officer who pushed him with a baton starts to lean over him before he is motioned away by another officer. Someone is heard calling for a medic.

The radio station reported that two medics came forward and helped the man into an ambulance. Police later said that a man was injured after tripping and falling, the radio station said.

But after viewing the video, Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood ordered an investigation and suspended the two officers, Brown said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Twitter that he spoke with Mayor Brown and agreed that the officers involved should be suspended, pending a formal investigation.

He wrote,”Police Officers must enforce – NOT ABUSE – the law.”

The 75-year-old victim was in stable but serious condition at Erie County Medical Center Hospital in Buffalo, Brown said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

U.S. crowds defy curfew to protest Floyd’s death, but violence subsides

By Jonathan Ernst and Brendan O’Brien

WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – U.S. protesters ignored curfews overnight as they vented their anger over the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police, but there was a marked drop in the violence that led President Donald Trump to threaten to deploy the military.

George Floyd died after a white policeman pinned his neck under the officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, reigniting the explosive issue of police brutality against African Americans five months before the November presidential election.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities coast to coast for an eighth night as National Guard troops lined the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

There was sporadic violence in Washington and Portland, Oregon, with protesters tossing fireworks and bottles answered by police flash grenades and tear gas.

Clashes between protesters and police and looting of some stores in New York City gave way to relative quiet in the early hours of Wednesday. Police told media they made 200 arrests, largely for curfew violations.

In Los Angeles, many demonstrators who defied the curfew were arrested, but calm had been restored by mid-evening to the extent that television stations switched from wall-to-wall coverage back to regular programming.

Large marches and rallies also took place in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver and Seattle.

The officer who knelt on Floyd, Derek Chauvin, 44, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved in the incident were fired but have not been charged.

‘SILENCE IS VIOLENCE’

Although rallies on behalf of Floyd and other victims of police brutality in recent days have been largely peaceful, many have turned to vandalism, arson and looting after dark. On Monday night, five police officers were hit by gunfire in two cities.

Outside the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday afternoon a throng took to one knee, chanting “silence is violence” and “no justice, no peace,” as officers faced them just before the government-imposed curfew.

Many of the protesters used the slogan “take a knee”, referring both to how Floyd died and a long-standing protest against racism in America that started in 2016 with a football player taking a knee instead of standing during the National Anthem.

The crowd remained after dark, despite the curfew and vows by Trump to crack down on what he has called lawlessness by “hoodlums” and “thugs,” using National Guard troops or even the U.S. military if necessary.

The Republican president, who is seeking re-election in November, continued his hard-line rhetoric, urging police to “get tough” in a series of tweets on Wednesday, a day after his likely challenger former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden vowed to heal the nation’s racial divide.

In Atlanta, four police officers and two former officers were charged with using excessive force while arresting two students. Minneapolis launched an investigation into possible discriminatory practices in the police department over the last 10 years.

In New York, thousands of chanting protesters ignored the curfew to march from the Barclays Center in Flatbush toward the Brooklyn Bridge as police helicopters whirred overheard.

The crowd halted at an entrance to the Manhattan Bridge roadway, chanted at riot police: “Walk with us! Walk with us.”

New York state police arrested a 30-year-old woman Tuesday after she drove a car striking three police officers at a demonstration in Buffalo on Monday.

On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, hundreds of people filled the street, marching past famous landmarks of the film industry. Others gathered outside Los Angeles Police Department headquarters downtown, in some cases hugging and shaking hands with a line of officers outside.

Los Angeles was the scene of violent riots in 1992, following the acquittal of four policemen charged in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, that saw more than 60 people killed and an estimated $1 billion in damage.

The past week’s demonstrations have reverberated outside America, and a growing chorus of companies, celebrities and athletes have also denounced Floyd’s death and urged change.

In Rome, Pope Francis called for national reconciliation in the United States, saying that while racism is intolerable, the street violence that has broken out is “self-destructive and self-defeating”.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found a majority of Americans sympathize with the protesters.

The survey conducted on Monday and Tuesday found 64% of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” while 27% said they were not and 9% were unsure.

In Minneapolis, Roxie Washington, mother of Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, told a news conference he was a good man.

“I want everybody to know that this is what those officers took from me …,” she said, sobbing. “Gianna does not have a father. He will never see her grow up, graduate.”

(Reporting by Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Anne Saphir, Brendan O’Brien, Nathan Layne, Brad Brooks, Diane Craft, Jonathan Allen, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Aakriti Bhalla, Rich McKay and Philip Pullella; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Simao)

Palestinians protest, Israel braces ahead of Trump plan

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday hours before its scheduled release at a ceremony in Washington.

Israeli troops meanwhile reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders rejected it even before its official release. They say his administration is biased toward Israel.

The Palestinians fear Trump’s blueprint will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War – by permitting Israel to annex large chunks of occupied territory including blocs of Jewish settlements.

Diab Al-Louh, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Egypt, said on Tuesday they had requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League council at ministerial level – which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would attend.

GAZA PROTESTS

In Gaza City on Tuesday, protesters waved Palestinian flags and held aloft posters of Abbas. “Trump is a fool, Palestine is not for sale!” an activist shouted through a loudspeaker.

Others chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as they burned tires and posters of Trump. More protests were expected after Trump announces details of his plan later in the day.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops had been sent to reinforce the West Bank’s Jordan Valley – an area which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to partially annex.

Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, told Reuters in London that Trump’s peace plan was merely “political theater”.

“It is not a peace deal. It is the ‘bantustan-isation’ of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine. We will be turned into bantustans,” he said, referring to the nominally independent black enclaves in apartheid-era South Africa.

“Jan. 28, 2020 will mark the official legal stamp of approval of the United States for Israel to implement a full-fledged apartheid system,” he said.

Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to the former South African regime.

GOOD DEAL?

Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House later on Tuesday to outline his plan, the result of three years work by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

He met with Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz ahead of the announcement. Both were briefed on its contents.

Netanyahu said it was “the opportunity of a century and we’re not going to pass it by.” Gantz called it a “significant and historic milestone.”

A Netanyahu spokesman said he would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.

But Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it is far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on a draft of the plan fear that it will seek to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank.

Further obstacles include the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan can work without them. An Abbas spokesman urged any Arab or Muslim officials invited to the ceremony to boycott it.

Addressing their fears, Trump said on Monday: “They probably won’t want it initially…but I think in the end they will. It’s very good for them. In fact it’s overly good to them.”

But on Monday Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.

Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said both Trump and Netanyahu were looking to change the subject from their own domestic troubles.

“The problem is it doesn’t feel like this is the beginning of an important initiative,” Alterman said.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Both men deny any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Dan Williams and Steven Holland in Washington; Editing by Angus Macswan and Mark Heinrich)

‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops

By John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.

“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr’s followers.

“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.

Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.

It has temporarily united rival Shi’ite groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

Parliament urged the government to eject U.S. troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS.

Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting against IS remnants and a buffer against dominance of Iran.

“DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER”

U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.

“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Iraqi President Barham Salih posted a photo of Friday’s march on Twitter and wrote that Iraqis deserved a “fully sovereign state that serves its people.”

Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.

Marchers on Friday wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.

Anti-American marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.

The march did not head as initially feared towards U.S. Embassy, the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.

Many marchers boarded buses in the early afternoon to head home. A smaller number shuffled along towards Tahrir Square.

Outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a sign read “Warning. Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross”.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises
By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence as gunmen killed at least eight people near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.

More than 20 others were wounded near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said, a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.

Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior U.S. Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.

Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran’s allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.

Soleimani was reported to be in Baghdad this week.

Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days – until Dec. 16 – to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year but protesters say that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.

(Reporting by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith)