Iraq PM orders probe after 2 protesters killed in clashes

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said Monday he had ordered an investigation into the killing of two anti-government protesters, saying security forces were not authorized to fire “a single bullet” toward the demonstrators. Twenty-one protesters were also wounded in the overnight clashes.

Separately, four katyusha rockets landed in Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, which houses U.S.-led coalition troops, according to three Iraqi security officials. One official said the rockets targeted a runway used by Iraqi helicopters, close to where American forces are present. One helicopter was damaged. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The violence comes after months of quiet in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and were an embarrassment to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has vowed to meet protester demands by holding early elections and investigating the death of hundreds of protesters at the hands of security forces in recent months.

Tensions between the security forces and the demonstrators soared late Sunday when dozens of protesters cut the road connecting two main intersections — Tayaran Square and Tahrir Square — in the capital Baghdad. Some burned tires while others chanted slogans about power cuts in the scorching summer months.

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Iraq is facing electricity shortages amid searing summer temperatures that can top 50 degrees Celsius, or about 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

A senior Electricity Ministry official said the power supply fell short by 10,000 megawatts this summer, down 1,000 megawatts compared to last year, due to lack of maintenance in several power plants because of lack of of funds in state coffers. This has also slowed investment projects to add more power to Iraq’s grid, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

“Every bullet directed our youth and our people while demanding their rights is a bullet directed at our dignity and principles,” al-Kadhimi said in a televised speech Monday evening. He said he had ordered a probe and requested to have the facts before him within 72 hours.

Al-Kadhimi said there is no “magic solution” for Iraq’s electricity problem, which is a result of decades of corruption and mismanagement and “cannot be resolved overnight.” He said his government was working on a solution, and reiterated his intention to pave the way for early elections in line with protesters’ demands.

In October, mass anti-government protests erupted in Baghdad and across Iraq’s predominately Shiite south as tens of thousands of angry Iraqi youth took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, unemployment and poor services, including electricity. Pressure from protests lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Since October, over 600 demonstrators have been killed during protests due to live fire and tear gas used by security forces. But al-Kadhimi, who was sworn in as prime minister in May, also has to cope with an unprecedented economic crisis spurred by falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

Iraq’s Health Ministry has reported 110,032 cases, including 4,362 deaths.

The spread of the coronavirus had halted mass rallies and prompted most protesters to leave, with only a few remaining at the tent sit-in at Tahrir Square, once the epicenter of the protest movement.

Ali al-Bayati, a spokesman for the semi-official Independent High Commission for Human Rights, also said two protesters had been killed. The commission said their reports indicate live fire and pellet rifles were used to disperse protesters.

Earlier, Iraqi security officials said demonstrators had hurled firebombs and stones at the riot police, while rights monitors said security forces set fire to demonstrator tents at Tahrir Square.

A statement from the military spokesman Yahya Rasool said security forces had been given strict instructions not to use violence against peaceful protesters “except in the event of extreme necessity.”

He said the events in Baghdad squares were “unfortunate” and that a probe was underway into what happened.

“We are aware of the difficulties that our people are going through,” Rasool said. “This government, with its short life, is trying to address (them) under exceptional economic and health conditions,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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