BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Armed Forces denied using poisonous gas on protesters and confirmed that it only uses regular tear gas to tackle the demonstrations.
“We use only tear gas that is used by the United States and Britain,” Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad on Monday.
Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly young, unarmed protesters, killing more than 280 people, according to a Reuters tally.
Overnight, four protesters were killed and some 130 wounded in renewed clashes between security forces and protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah, a rights group said, while on Sunday, security forces fired tear gas at anti-government protesters in Baghdad injuring at least 22 people.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on Iraqi authorities to “immediately rein in security forces” to prevent a “bloodbath” following incidents in Baghdad and Basra that killed at least six protesters and injured dozens more on Saturday “amid a police operation to clear demonstrations from several bridges and streets near Tahrir Square.”
Amnesty added that it “continues to receive reports of excessive force used to disperse protesters and new cases of arrest and intimidation of protesters.”
However, Khalaf said that the arrests have been made only through judicial orders and stressed that the security forces would not allow any harm toward policemen and security personnel.
“We arrested a number of demonstrators who threw Molotov cocktails at security officials in Baghdad,” he said, adding that they have also witnessed looting and vandalism inside Al-Khilani Square and “acts of sabotage have been carried out in Basra.”
Khalaf also accused groups of manufacturing explosives in the Turkish Restaurant building, an abandoned building overlooking Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, which has become a temporary home and a bustling center for protesters staging demonstrations.
However, Khalaf said: “We have not used any force and the majority of the security forces are in their barracks.”
He added that the Iraqi Civil Defense is permanently working to help the wounded and ministries have succeeded in introducing some reforms and providing jobs in several provinces in response to protesters demands.
At a UN review of member states’ human rights records in Geneva, diplomats from several countries also accused the Iraqi government of using excessive force on Monday.
Justice Minister Farooq Amin Othman acknowledged there had been “individual violations” by members of the law enforcement agencies but said they were being investigated.
.”..We would like to express our deep regret for the number of people killed,” he told international diplomats gathered at what the UN calls the Universal Periodic Review.
“Our constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and the objective of our authorities is to protect the protesters,” he said.
Speaking through a translator, he insisted that the government “firmly stands behind the respect for human rights,” and had “taken serious efforts to thoroughly investigate all of the attacks on the protesters.”
But he lamented that “some lawless individuals (had) ... attacked security forces, and national institutions, private property and other types of violations and acts that have hampered the peaceful character of the demonstrations.”
Other Iraqi officials said plans were under way to free detained protesters and for electoral reform, both of which were among a package of reforms urged by the United Nations.
But diplomats from several countries including the United States issued stinging criticisms.
“We recommend that Iraq immediately cease using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, particularly the unlawful use of tear gas canisters and live ammunition, and hold accountable, in a transparent manner, those responsible for this violence,” Daniel Kronenfeld, Human Rights Counselor at the US Mission in Geneva.
The Netherlands called the use of force “unlawful, indiscriminate and excessive.” Germany expressed deep concern and urged immediate steps to prevent further loss of life.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq released a set of recommendations on Sunday, including the release of peaceful protesters and investigations into deaths.
Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Hussain Mahmood Alkhateeb, said the plan envisaged by Baghdad to address unrest was already being implemented and went “wider” than the UN proposals.
“No demonstrator will stay in prison unless there is a criminal investigation against them,” he told Reuters.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government has taken some measures to try to quell unrest including handouts to the poor and job opportunities for graduates, but has failed to keep up with growing demands of demonstrators who are now calling for an overhaul of Iraq’s sectarian political system and the departure of its entire ruling elite.
At least 320 protesters have been killed by security forces since the protests and unrest over living conditions began last month.
The demonstrators complain of widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts, despite Iraq’s vast oil reserves.
The unrest is one of the biggest and most complicated challenges to the current ruling system since it took power after the US invasion and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.