4 protesters killed as Iraqi cleric calls for quick reforms

Anti-government protesters run for cover while security forces fire tear gas and live ammunition during clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-Government protesters, in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 21, 2019. (AP)
Updated 23 November 2019

4 protesters killed as Iraqi cleric calls for quick reforms

  • Iraq’s massive anti-government protest movement erupted Oct. 1 and quickly escalated into calls to sweep aside Iraq’s sectarian system

BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces killed four protesters in Baghdad on Friday and forcibly dispersed activists blocking the main port near Basra, as the country’s top cleric warned nothing but speedy electoral reforms would resolve unrest.

The clashes centered on Baghdad’s Rasheed Street. Security forces opened fire and launched tear gas at protesters on a central Baghdad bridge. 

Two people died from bullet wounds and two from tear gas canisters launched directly at their heads. At least 61 more were injured.

In the south, security forces reopened the entrance to Iraq’s main port, Umm Qasr, which protesters had blocked since Monday. Normal operations had not yet resumed.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, urged politicians to hurry up in reforming electoral laws because the changes would be the only way to resolve weeks of deadly unrest.

“We affirm the importance of speeding up the passing of the electoral law and the electoral commission law because this represents the country moving past the big crisis,” his representative said during a sermon in Karbala.

 

He also repeated his view that the protesters had legitimate demands and should not be met with violence.

The fighting appeared to have begun when protesters tried Thursday to dismantle a security forces barricade on the street, which leads to Ahrar Bridge, a span over the Tigris River that has been a repeated flashpoint.

Security forces responded with barrages of tear gas and live ammunition that killed 10 protesters and injured more than 100 by Thursday evening.

The violence took off again Friday afternoon. Live rounds and tear gas cannisters were fired by security forces from behind a concrete barrier on Rasheed Street.

With their faces concealed with surgical masks, protesters ran from the scene, picking up the bodies of the dead and wounded who collapsed on their way. Plumes of smoke billowed as ammunition fire rang out in the background.

One protester was killed Friday by live ammunition, while the other two died because of tear gas, the officials said. It was not immediately clear if they died from inhaling the gas or from a direct hit by a tear gas cannister, which has caused several other deaths in recent weeks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Protesters have held one side of Baghdad’s three main bridges — Sinak and Ahrar and Jumhuriya — leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government. Security forces are deployed on the other side to prevent them entering the area, which houses government buildings and various foreign embassies, including the United States.

At least 320 protesters have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when demonstrators took to the streets in Baghdad and across Iraq’s mainly Shiite south to decry rampant government corruption and lack of basic services despite Iraq’s oil wealth.

The international community, including the United Nations and the United States have denounced the use of force against peaceful demonstrators in statements.

The leaderless movement seeks to dismantle the sectarian system and unseat the government, including Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. 

Protesters are demanding the overthrow of a political class seen as corrupt and serving foreign powers while many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, health care or education.

 


Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

Updated 36 min 6 sec ago

Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

  • Death of three-year-old from injuries caused by August 4 explosions has brought grieving nation together
  • Outpouring of online tributes to Alexandra testified to the despair and anguish of Lebanese across the world

LONDON: In an ideal world, Alexandra Najjar should have been able to enjoy the rest of a pleasant Mediterranean summer with her family. Once the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon had been tamed, she should have been able to experience her first day of school.

She would have made many new friends and begun to absorb all the knowledge that a three-year-old is capable of when they first enter kindergarten.

And as the days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years, Alexandra’s parents would have watched her grow into a young girl, enjoy life, dream big and perhaps achieve greatness in some field.

Alas, in the harsh real world of a crisis-wracked Lebanon, the dreams of Alexandra’s parents will remain just that.

Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut exploded as Alexandra was playing with a friend on the evening of August 4, leaving her severely injured.

Shockwaves from that blast devastated Beirut, leaving its streets blanketed in debris and shards of glass — and many of its residents caked in grey dust and crimson-red blood.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters )

Three days later, after being in a critical condition in a hospital and suffering internal bleeding in her brain, Alexandra succumbed to her wounds.

“You killed us in our own home, in a place where I thought I could leave my family, protect my family . . . where if crimes are happening and we don’t have anything in this country, then at least we have our home where we can be safe,” said Paul Najjar, Alexandra’s grief-stricken father, in a TV interview on Saturday evening, assailing Lebanon’s leaders.

“What you did is a crime at the cost of our family that is so very united and this for me, at the most, is a crime at the cost of love because if there’s anything I should believe in, it’s this  — which was the foundation of our family, it still is and will continue to be so.”

As the pain of the Najjar family’s loss sank in, photos and videos of Alexandra — or “Alixou,” the name by which parents called her — began to be shared widely via social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, both in Lebanon and outside it.

Tributes poured in online, testifying to the despair and anguish Lebanese across the world felt in the aftermath of the explosions. Alexandra’s untimely death had put a human face on Beirut’s horrible tragedy.

 

In one of the pictures, Alexandra is seen sitting atop her father’s shoulders as he took part in a march during last year’s October 17 “revolution,” demanding an end to Lebanon’s twin bane of corruption and sectarianism.

The protesters were calling for a better world for all Lebanese — and a brighter future for Alexandra.

The captions accompanying the photos point to the impact of the Najjar family’s tragedy on the Lebanese people and diaspora.

“This is a photo of Alexandra protesting for a better Lebanon to remove the corrupt government and no one listened and now she’s in heaven,” former Miss USA Rima Fakih wrote below a post on Instagram.

Another caption says: “Alexandra, you are in each of our hearts and prayers today and always. Your death will not be in vain . . . we will make sure of it!”

Alexandra was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut explosions, whose human cost so far includes 150 deaths, nearly 6,000 injured and another 300,000 homeless.

After citizens and residents independently organized and cleaned up the streets and homes of the areas most affected by the blast’s impact, shock turned to anger.

 

 

“My message to the Lebanese is a message of unity,” Paul Najjar said in the interview. “They killed us — they didn’t kill Christians or Muslims or politically-affiliated or not politically-affiliated. There is none of this anymore — a message to all the people who are still following these people.

“Please, enough. We need to stand together. We need to stand united so that we can make the change, so we can revolt for the sake of Alexandra and every child and every family that wants to live in this country like we had hope for.”

Paul Najjar said he and his wife returned to Lebanon and set up a company in an effort to help the country.

“We had hope that we would help the country. We also hoped that Alixou would grow up in Lebanon,” he said.

On Saturday, thousands of Lebanese made their way to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square demanding accountability for the explosions, and the resignation of all government officials. Many of them carried nooses, which they used for symbolic hangings of Lebanon’s principal political actors, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The government responded by deploying riot police and the army, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to subdue similar protests in front of the parliament in Riad Al-Solh Square and the nearby Beirut Souks.

Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency and Relief Corps figures showed that the clashes left 728 more Lebanese injured, of whom 153 were taken to hospital and 575 treated on site.

“For your information, rubber bullets could kill and cause permanent damage. If necessary, it should be aimed at legs only. Yesterday, and in one hospital, there were seven open surgical eyes and a ruptured abdominal spleen,” Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, a former Minister of Health, said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, little light has been shed by the government on why such a huge quantity of a highly combustible chemical was stored next to the Beirut Port Silos building after being confiscated from a Russian-leased ship six years ago.

“The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb,” President Michel Aoun said on Friday.

Whatever the truth, UNICEF has warned that almost 80,000 of those displaced by the “incident” are children whose families are in desperate need of support. 

One children’s hospital in the Karantina area, which had a specialized unit treating critical newborns, was destroyed.

Across Beirut, at least 12 primary health care facilities, maternal, immunization and newborn centers have been damaged, disrupting services for nearly 120,000 people.

Against this grim backdrop, Paul Najjar and his wife are hoping that Alexandra’s death will not be in vain but will have a positive impact when the nation rebuilds itself.

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Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad