Iraqi state forces ‘complicit’ in massacre of Baghdad protesters

An ambulance arrives in Tahrir square after unidentified men attacked an anti-government protest camp in Baghdad late on Dec. 6. (AFP)
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Updated 17 December 2019

Iraqi state forces ‘complicit’ in massacre of Baghdad protesters

  • Dozens of people were killed and 137 injured when gunmen opened fire on a crowd gathered in Al-Khilani Square on Dec. 6
  • Human Rights Watch says Iraqi security forces abandoned two checkpoints as the gunmen arrived

RIYADH: The killing of dozens of Iraqi protesters in Baghdad earlier this month was carried out by unidentified armed forces in cooperation with Iraqi national and local security forces, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

Between 29 and 80 people were killed and 137 injured when gunmen opened fire on a crowd gathered in Al-Khilani Square on Dec. 6, the organization said in a report into the attack.

The killings came amid a brutal crackdown against widespread protests across southern Iraq that have left more than 500 dead.

The high death tolls have been blamed on a brutal response by government security forces but also the involvement of armed groups. Iran has also been blamed for playing a hand in organizing a response to the protests.

“Police and military forces withdrew as the unidentified militia, some in uniforms, began shooting,” the Human Rights Watch report said.

Witnesses said about 1,000 people were gathered in the square and a nearby five-story parking garage that had been used as a hub for the protests when seven pickup trucks sped into the area.

“As the vehicles drove through the square slowly, gunmen in plain black uniforms and civilian dress opened fire with AK-47s and PK machine guns above the protesters, before lowering and firing directly at them,” the report said.

The attackers then moved on to the building known as Al-Senak garage. Men carrying machetes and sticks stormed the building before more arrived with guns and opened fire inside.

“Five of my friends are still missing, and I don’t know if they are dead or were detained,” one of the witnesses said. “I saw the armed men loading bodies into their buses and trucks an hour before they drove away.”

The witnesses said about two dozen Federal Police and Iraqi Security Forces, who were manning two checkpoints in the square leave as the gunmen arrived. 

Nine hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, the armed men left and the security forces returned within minutes.

“There’s very strong evidence the Iraqi authorities outsourced their dirty work against protesters, leaving just as the killings commenced and returning to assist with arrests,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said. “If they stood by and allowed these armed men to attack protesters or carried out the murders themselves, the Iraqi government forces will be responsible.”

“The authorities, it seems, even allowed the lights to go out, blanketing the protesters in darkness with only flying bullets to light up the sky.”

The report said that videos show some people detained during the violence being released and claiming they had been abused. A police officer tells them that they had been held by Kata'ib Hezbollah, an armed group in the Popular Mobilization Forces linked to Iran.

Human Rights Watch called on Iran, along with the US and UK, to stop providing military support to the Iraqi government until the killings of protesters stop.

Turkey raises migrant pressure on EU over Syria conflict

Updated 29 February 2020

Turkey raises migrant pressure on EU over Syria conflict

  • Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib region on Thursday
  • Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks

PAZARKULE: Turkey vowed the Syrian regime will “pay a price” for dozens of dead Turkish soldiers and raised pressure on the EU over the conflict by threatening to let thousands of migrants enter the bloc.
Turkey and Russia, which back opposing forces in the Syria conflict, held high-level talks to try to defuse tensions that have sparked fears of a broader war and a new migration crisis for Europe.
Greek police clashed on Saturday with thousands of migrants who were already gathering on the border to try to enter Europe.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday vowed to allow refugees to travel on to Europe from Turkey which he said can no longer handle new waves of people fleeing war-torn Syria. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
The comments were his first after Turkish 34 troops were killed since Thursday in the northern Syria province of Idlib where Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces are battling to retake the last rebel holdout area.
“What did we do yesterday (Friday)? We opened the doors,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “We will not close those doors ...Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.”
He was referring to a 2016 deal with the European Union to stop refugee flows in exchange for billions of euros in aid.
In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency meeting to discuss tensions on the border with Turkey.
The Turkish leader said 18,000 migrants have amassed on the Turkish borders with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday.
Thousands of migrants who remained stuck on the Turkish-Greek border were in skirmishes with Greek police on Saturday who fired tear gas to push them back, according to AFP photographer in the western province of Edirne.
The migrants massed at the Pazarkule border crossing responded by hurling stones at the police.
In 2015, Greece became the main EU entry point for one million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The pressure to cope with the influx split the European Union.
“Greece yesterday came under an organized, mass, illegal attack... a violation of our borders and endured it,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Saturday after the emergency meeting with Mitsotakis.
“We averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our land borders.”
A Greek police source said security forces fired tear gas Saturday morning against migrants massing on the Turkish side because the migrants had set fires and opened holes in the border fences.
Armed policemen and soldiers are patrolling the Evros river shores — a common crossing point — and are warning with loudspeakers not to enter Greek territory.
Greek authorities were also using drones to monitor the migrants moves.
Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told Skai television the situation was under control
“I believe that the borders have been protected,” he said.
According to Hellenic Coast Guard, from early Friday to early Saturday 180 migrants reached the islands of Eastern Aegean, Lesbos and Samos in sea crossings.
The UN said nearly a million people — half of them children — have been displaced in the bitter cold by the fighting in northwest Syria since December.
Turkey said that Turkish forces destroyed a “chemical warfare facility,” just south of Aleppo, in retaliation its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in Idlib.
“As of last night, we blew up a depot housing seven chemical products,” Erdogan said. “We would not want things to reach this point but as they force us to do this, they will pay a price.”
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years. A 34th Turkish soldier has since died.
The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.
As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces — backed by Russian air power — have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the remaining chunks of the territory.
On Friday, Erdogan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a bid to scale down the tensions, with the Kremlin saying the two expressed “serious concern” about the situation.
Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, according to the Kremlin.
Despite being on opposite ends of the war, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution.
The United States and the United Nations have called for an end to the Syrian offensive in Idlib and the deadly flare-up raising fresh concerns for civilians caught up in the escalation of the eight-year civil war.