Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam
By Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis thronged central Baghdad on Friday demanding the root-and-branch downfall of the political elite in the biggest day of mass anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Five people died from injuries sustained overnight after security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters camped out in the capital’s Tahrir Square. At least 103 people were injured, police and hospital sources said.

Protests, in which 250 people have been killed over the past month, have accelerated dramatically in recent days, drawing huge crowds from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides to reject the political parties in power since 2003.

Thousands have been camped out in the square, with many thousands more joining them by day. Friday, the Muslim main day of prayer, drew the biggest crowds yet, with many taking to the streets after worship.

By the afternoon tens of thousands had packed the square, condemning elites they see as deeply corrupt, beholden to foreign powers and responsible for daily privations.

Protests have been comparatively peaceful by day, becoming more violent after dark as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to battle self-proclaimed “revolutionary” youths.

Clashes have focused on the ramparts to the Republic Bridge leading across the Tigris to the heavily fortified Green Zone of government buildings, where the protesters say out-of-touch leaders are holed up in a walled-off bastion of privilege.

“Every time we smell death from your smoke, we yearn more to cross your republic’s bridge,” someone wrote on a nearby wall.

Amnesty International said on Thursday security forces were using “previously unseen” tear gas canisters modeled on military grenades that are 10 times as heavy as standard ones.

“We are peaceful yet they fire on us. What are we, Islamic State militants? I saw a man die. I took a tear gas canister to the face,” said Barah, 21, whose face was wrapped in bandages.

‘MINI-STATE’

In Baghdad, protesters had set up checkpoints in the streets leading into and surrounding Tahrir Square, redirecting traffic.

Young people swept the streets, many sang about the sit-in. Helmets and gas masks were now a common sight.

A woman pushed her baby in a stroller draped with an Iraqi flag while representatives from several Iraqi tribes waved banners pledging support for the protesters.

Mohammed Najm, a jobless engineering graduate, said the square had become a model for the country he and his comrades hope to build: “We are cleaning streets, others bring us water, they bring us electricity, they wired it up.

“A mini-state. Health for free, tuk-tuks transporting for free,” he said. “The state has been around for 16 years and what it failed to do we did in seven days in Tahrir.”

Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, health care or education. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in office for a year, has found no response to the protests.

‘EVIL BUNCH’

In his weekly sermon, top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned of “civil conflict, chaos and destruction” if the security forces or paramilitary groups crack down on the protests. And he gave an apparent nod to protesters who say the government is being manipulated from abroad, above all by Iran.

“No one person or group or side with an agenda, or any regional or international party, can infringe upon the will of Iraqis or force an opinion upon them,” Sistani’s representative said during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

Reuters reported this week that a powerful Iran-backed faction had considered abandoning Abdul Mahdi, but decided to keep him in office after a secret meeting attended by a general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. An Iranian security official confirmed the general, Qassem Soleimani, had attended Wednesday’s meeting, to “give advice”.

Many see the political class as subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s main allies, the United States and Iran, who use Iraq as a proxy in a struggle for regional influence.

“Iraqis have suffered at the hands of this evil bunch who came atop American tanks, and from Iran. Qassem Soleimani’s people are now firing on the Iraqi people in cold blood,” said protester Qassam al-Sikeeni.

President Barham Salih said on Thursday that Abdul Mahdi would resign if parliament’s main blocs agreed on a replacement.

Protesters say that wouldn’t be enough; they want to undo the entire post-Saddam political system which distributes power among sectarian parties.

“So what if (Abdul Mahdi) resigns? What will happen? They will get someone worse,” said barber Amir, 26.

There were protests in other provinces, with the unrest having spread across much of the southern Shi’ite heartland.

In the southern city of Diwaniya, roughly 3,000 people including many families with small children were out.

Earlier, protesters in oil-rich Basra tried to block the road leading to Majnoon oilfield and pitched a tent but operations were not interrupted, oil sources said.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

After tough year, Hong Kong democracy protesters sound warning to China on New Year’s day

Pro-democracy protesters gather inside civic square, reopened for the first time since Occupy Central movement in 2014, at the government headquarters in Hong Kong, China January 1, 2018.

By Donny Kwok and Wyman Ma

HONG KONG (Reuters) – After a year that saw democracy advocates in Hong Kong jailed and ousted from public office, thousands marched through the streets of Hong Kong on New Year’s Day to warn China not to meddle further in the city’s affairs and undermine its autonomy.

Over the past year, Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has experienced what critics and pro-democracy activists describe as an intensifying assault on its autonomy by China’s Communist Party leaders.

This is despite Beijing’s promises to grant the city wide-ranging freedoms including an independent judiciary, under a so-called “one country, two systems” framework.

Besides the controversial jailing of several prominent young activists for unlawful assembly over the massive 2014 “Occupy” pro-democracy protests, authorities also ejected six pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislature for failing to take proper oaths of office.

The city’s reputation as one of Asia’s most robust legal jurisdictions has also come under a cloud amidst accusations of a politicization of certain legal cases.

The protesters, who included many middle-aged and elderly citizens, held up banners and chanted the march’s main theme to “Protect Hong Kong” during a walk of several kilometers to the city’s government headquarters.

Others decried an unprecedented move by China’s parliament last week that said part of a high-speed railway station being built in Hong Kong would be regarded as mainland territory governed by mainland laws.

“We are here to tell the government that we will not give up,” said Joshua Wong, one of the democracy activists jailed last year, but who is now out on bail pending an appeal.

“We have encountered many difficulties last year, including some of us being sued and jailed, but we will stand with Hong Kong people. We will fight for the rule of law, fight for Hong Kong, fight for the future, fight for the next generations.”

Two protesters who dressed up as People’s Liberation Army soldiers said they were concerned about the reach of China’s security apparatus. Others called for full democracy as the only lasting means to safeguard the city’s way of life.

The organizers of the march said some 10,000 people had showed up. Police, however, put the figure at 6,200.

The demonstration was largely peaceful, though some protesters who tried to later gather in a forecourt of the government’s headquarters skirmished briefly with security guards.

The so-called “Civic Square” was where the 2014 pro-democracy protests first kicked off when a group of protesters stormed over a fence and faced off with local police.

Despite the defiance on show, some said they feared Hong Kong would continue to be squeezed by Beijing.

“Everyone’s doing what they can,” said Andy Lau who was among the marchers. “If we have the right to demonstrate then we should. But I’m not feeling positive. I think things will get worse.”

The Hong Kong government, in a statement, said it “fully respects the right of Hong Kong people to take part in processions and their freedom of expression”.

China’s leader Xi Jinping has said that while Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems”, Beijing still holds supreme authority over the city and won’t tolerate any challenge to its authority.

(Additional reporting by Chermaine Lee; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Adrian Croft)