Seven killed as Baghdad protest turns violent

Protesters carry a man overcome by tear gas as protests in Baghdad turn violent. (Reuters)
Updated 11 February 2017

Seven killed as Baghdad protest turns violent

BAGHDAD: Seven people were killed in clashes that erupted in central Baghdad on Saturday between the security forces and protesters demanding reforms to Iraq’s electoral system, police said.
The violence was the deadliest to break out at a protest since a wave of demonstrations demanding better services and accusing Iraq’s political class of corruption and nepotism began in 2015.
Police fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets at the crowd when some protesters, most of them supporters of cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, tried to force a cordon and reach Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.
“There were seven dead as a result of the violence. Two of them are from the security forces and the other five are protesters,” a police colonel told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said more than 200 were hurt in the chaos. Most were protesters suffering from tear gas inhalation, but at least 11 had more serious injuries caused by bullets and tear gas canisters.
Protesters initially gathered peacefully on Tahrir square to demand a change in the electoral law and the replacement of the electoral commission ahead of provincial polls due in September.
“The demonstrators tried to cross Jumhuriya bridge, the security forces fired tear gas to stop them but they insisted,” a senior police official said.
Sadr supporters accusing Iraq’s political class of corruption and nepotism broke into the so-called Green Zone twice in 2016, storming the prime minister’s office and the parliament building.
Last year’s protest movement was halted when tens of thousands of forces launched Iraq’s largest military operation in years four months ago to retake the city of Mosul from the Daesh group.
However, last month’s announcement that elections would take place in September has brought the political agenda back to the fore, and Sadr’s movement has vowed to increase the pressure again.
Saturday’s demonstrators received a de facto green light to escalate their protest in the shape of a statement from the Najaf-based Sadr.
“If you want to approach the gates of the Green Zone to affirm your demands and make them heard to those on the other side of the fence... you can,” he said.
Sadr encouraged the protesters to remain there until sunset but warned them against attempting to break into the fortified area.
The protesters met fierce resistance from the security forces and never made it across the Tigris River running between Tahrir Square and the Green Zone.
But Sadr, a mercurial Shiite who once led a rebellion against US occupation but has more recently spearheaded an anti-corruption protest movement, urged Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi not to turn a deaf ear.
“I urge him to deliver those reforms immediately, listen to the voice of the people and remove the corrupt,” the statement said.
He later appealed for restraint and the demonstrators dispersed.
Abadi said the violence would be investigated and those responsible for it prosecuted.
“Our action will get tougher, even if that involves physically taking over the commission,” Abu Haidar, a protester wearing traditional Arab dress, told AFP before the rally turned violent.
The electoral commission issued a statement asking for protection from the premier’s office and the international community.
A smaller group of protesters had already demonstrated near the Green Zone on Wednesday, while hundreds also gathered in several southern cities on Friday.
Their two main demands are for the members of the electoral commission to be replaced on the grounds that they are all affiliated to political parties and that the body supervising nationwide ballots was therefore anything but independent.
They also want the electoral law to be amended to give wider representation to smaller parties in the country’s elected bodies.
Sinan Al-Azzawi, a popular Iraqi actor, was among those who addressed the protest before the violence broke out.
Politicians “are profiteers and their only loyalty is to the countries they used to live in but not to Iraq,” he said, referring to the Saddam-era exile of many of the country’s current leaders.
“Those politicians, they created an electoral commission based on sectarian quotas. It has nine commissioners who belong to political entities... It’s not independent,” he said.


Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

Updated 42 min 7 sec ago

Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS: Rarely has the outcome of an election been so uncertain in Tunisia, the cradle and partial success story of the Arab Spring, as some seven million voters head to the polls Sunday to choose from a crowded field.
Key players include media mogul Nabil Karoui — behind bars due to an ongoing money laundering probe — Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living, and he has found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August is politically inspired.
The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes, albeit one with few clear political differences, brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi.
He had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July, but one thing appears sure — many voters remain undecided, due to difficulties in reading a shifting political landscape.
“I am undecided between two candidates — I will decide in the polling booth,” smiled one citizen, Sofiene, who added “honest candidates don’t have much chance of winning.”
Some hopefuls have tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials in a bid to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels.
One key newcomer is Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, who has avoided attaching his bid to a political party.
Instead, he has gone door-to-door to drum up support for his conservative platform.
Another independent candidate is Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who is running for the first time.
However, he has the backing of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.
The crowded field of 26 has been narrowed slightly by the last minute withdrawal of two candidates in favor of Zbidi — former political adviser Mohsen Marzouk and businessman Slim Riahi, just ahead of Saturday’s campaign blackout.
But it is Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of the campaign, which has been one of the biggest talking points.
Studies suggest his arrest boosted his popularity.
A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.
But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.
On Friday, an appeal to have the Tunisian mogul released from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said, two days after he began what his defense team said was a hunger strike.
The polarization between the different camps risks a derailment of the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarizing candidate,” such as Karoui.
Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living of close to a third since 2016.
Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), although overseas voting stations for Tunisia’s sizeable expatriate population have been open since Friday.
Some stations will remain open until 6:00 pm, while others will close two hours earlier, for security reasons.
Some 70,000 security agents will be deployed on Sunday, including 50,000 focused solely on polling stations, according to the interior ministry.
Exit polls are expected overnight Sunday into Monday, but preliminary results are not expected from the electoral commission until Tuesday.
The date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls — October 6.
Those polls are supposed to be more significant, as Tunisia is an emerging parliamentary democracy.
But several candidates have called for presidential powers to be beefed up, despite years of dictatorship under Ben Ali.