Violence escalates in Iraq as government pushes to end protests

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead two protesters in Iraq’s southern city of Nassiriya overnight and a Baghdad district became a battlefield on the third day of a drive by security forces to end months of demonstrations against the largely Iran-backed ruling elite.

Clashes over the weekend had already killed at least five protesters and rockets hit the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone housing government buildings.

Security sources told Reuters three people were wounded when at least one rocket landed inside the U.S. embassy compound, the first time in years that an attack on the Green Zone – a regular occurance – had actually hurt staff there.

The Iraqi military said five Katyusha rockets had hit the Green Zone late on Sunday, without reporting casualties. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities began the pushback on Saturday to try to end protests that began in the capital on Oct. 1 and in other southern cities. Demonstrators are demanding the removal of all politicians, free elections and an end to corruption.

In Nassiriya, at least 75 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, in overnight clashes when security forces tried to move them away from bridges in the city, police and health sources said.

Unknown gunmen in four pickup trucks had attacked the main protest camp there, shooting dead the two people and setting fire to demonstrators’ tents before fleeing the scene, the sources said.

Some protesters began building more permanent structures using bricks, Reuters witnesses said, while others broke into a police office on Monday and set fire to at least five police vehicles parked inside.

The leaderless movement is an unprecedented challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated and largely Iran-backed ruling elite, which emerged after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“REVOLUTION”

Pitched battles raged in the Khilani area of central Baghdad near Tahrir Square, on Monday with protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces using tear gas, live rounds in the air and slingshots to push them back.

Some of the demonstrators danced on the protest frontline while others shielded themselves behind concrete blocks and trees or by using metal sheets.

“This revolution is peaceful. They use various kinds of fire against us, live ammunition, bullets and teargas canisters. I got injured in my face,” said Allawi, a hooded protester who gave only his first name.

Tuk tuks darted through the crowd to help the wounded and carried away protesters suffering from teargas inhalation.

Demonstrations continued in other southern cities, despite repeated attempts by security forces to clear up their camps.

Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.

After a lull earlier this month, demonstrations resumed; protesters have controlled three key bridges in Baghdad and maintain camps and road blocks in several cities in the south.

The government has responded with violence and piecemeal reform. The international community has condemned the violence but not intervened to stop it.

Saturday’s push by the authorities began after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday that he would halt the involvement of his supporters in the demonstrations.

Sadr had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October, but stopped short of calling on all his followers to join in.

“Everyone has come out protesting against the government,” said Hussain, a protester. “We demand that all politicians resign and get out. We don’t want Moqtada or any of them.”

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nadine Awadalla, Baghdad bureau; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, Editing by William Maclean and Philipaa Fletcher)

Iraq’s elite rallies around Iran-backed plan to hang on to power

Iraq’s elite rallies around Iran-backed plan to hang on to power
By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s ruling parties appear to have rallied behind a strategy, blessed by Iran, to try to survive a mass anti-government uprising by containing protests on the streets of Baghdad while offering a package of political reforms and elections next year.

But the proposed solution involves keeping in power a ruling elite that Iran has cultivated for years – unlikely to placate protesters who have been demanding the entire caste of politicians be swept aside.

Iran has been closely involved in formulating the new strategy, with a number of meetings between political groups and government figures attended by Qassem Soleimani, the general who commands the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that supervises Tehran’s clients across the Middle East.

Two sources with knowledge of the talks said Soleimani had approved the reform plan, which would keep Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in power until new elections next year, as it would give Iran time to recalculate how to retain influence.

The protests pose the biggest challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated political order since it emerged after a 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

At least 300 protesters have been killed, most by security forces firing live ammunition into crowds. But the violent response has done little to persuade the protesters to leave the streets.

A senior security official told Reuters new tactics were being rolled out to try to confine the demonstrations to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a roadway junction at the foot of a bridge across the Tigris, where demonstrators have camped out for weeks.

“Security forces received new orders on Saturday that protesters must be kept in Tahrir Square,” the security official said. “They’re working quietly now to seal off the square from all directions, and an arrest campaign is expected to follow in a bid to reduce momentum of the protests.”

Meanwhile the authorities will push on with a reform plan to mollify the crowd, with new elections run by a commission intended to be more independent, and parliament restructured to be smaller and more representative of Iraq’s diverse population.

Sources who have attended recent government meetings say the strategy now enjoys the backing not only of the Iran-backed parties that support the government, but also of their main rivals, the faction of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who regularly denounces Iran and had called for Abdul Mahdi to quit.

Sunni and Kurdish political leaders also support the plan.

“The anger of protesters at everyone in politics, even religious figures, forced all parties to listen to Iranian advice and work together to keep Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government standing,” said a source close to Sadr.

“Even Sadr is on board,” he said. “He worried that protests he’s not controlling could also threaten his position” among his followers, the source said.

REFORMS

The new reforms include lowering the minimum age of candidates, increasing the number of voting districts and reducing parliament to 222 seats from 329, according to a proposal from Iraq’s President Barham Salih seen by Reuters. Political appointees on Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission would be replaced with technocrats and judges.

Parliament will vote on the changes before eventually approving a date for early elections in 2020, two sources close to the talks said, leaving room for potential delays.

Izzat Shahbandar, an independent who has been mediating among senior political figures including Abdul Mahdi and regularly meets with protesters, said a partial cabinet reshuffle was agreed in principle, with the premier staying.

“Everyone has rallied around the prime minister now. He’s their best bet to avoid chaos,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the promise of reforms can take any of the heat out of the protests. The reforms clearly fall short of protester demands to scrap the entire post-Saddam political system, but parties could present them as evidence that they are serious about moving in the right direction.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who speaks on politics only in times of crisis and wields enormous influence over public opinion in Shi’ite-majority Iraq, has called for serious reform within a “reasonable time frame”. He has urged protesters not to go home until concrete steps are taken to meet their demands.

As the protesters’ demands have become more specific, some have called for a system with an elected executive president, less beholden to the political factions that have selected all of Iraq’s post-Saddam prime ministers behind closed doors.

Most say they just want the rulers out.

“They choke us so we can’t breathe, so we can’t speak and tell them to go away!” said Ammar, 20, from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, wearing a helmet with a scarf around his face at a medical tent where he was being treated for tear gas exposure.

“We’re dying here for our future. We’re dying for things to change.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Peter Graff)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)