Three Iraqi protesters killed and dozens wounded as anti-government unrest resumes

Anti-government protesters set fires and close streets during ongoing protests in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 21 January 2020

Three Iraqi protesters killed and dozens wounded as anti-government unrest resumes

  • In Baghdad’s Tayaran Square overnight, protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at police
  • Baghdad police said its forces had successfully reopened all the roads that were closed by “violent gatherings.”

BAGHDAD: Three Iraqi protesters were killed in the capital as thousands of anti-government demonstrators sought to shut streets across the country on Monday, their deadline for authorities to implement long-awaited reforms.

Rallies have rocked Iraq since October but fearing they would lose momentum amid spiraling regional tensions protesters last Monday told the government it had one week to meet their demands or they would escalate their demonstrations.

Protesters sought to ramp up pressure on the government on Monday with pop-up rallies away from their main gathering place in Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

Hundreds descended on nearby Tayaran Square, where they clashed with security forces who fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse them, an AFP journalist said.

Three protesters were killed, medics said, two of them by live rounds and the third by a tear gas canister that pierced his neck.

More than 50 other people were wounded, the medics said.

Young men wearing helmets and gas masks in an attempt to protect themselves from flying gas canisters erected barricades to try to push riot police back.

Protesters have called for early elections under a new voting law, an independent prime minister to replace outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi and for all corrupt officials to be held accountable.

Late Sunday young protesters began sealing off highways and bridges across the capital Baghdad and Iraq’s south, torching tires and setting up makeshift barricades.

They tried to do the same early Monday in the capital but security forces acted fast, with the military saying it had reopened a major Baghdad thoroughfare and arrested nine young men who had attempted to seal it off.

Fearing widespread rallies, provincial authorities across southern Iraq announced an official holiday on Monday.

But young people hit the streets in the southern cities of Kut, Nasiriyah, Baqubah, Amara and the holy city of Najaf, setting tires on fire.

In the protest hotspot of Diwaniyah, they shut key roads both inside and leading out of the city.

“The procrastination of the government and the political class for more than three months now has prompted us to take escalatory steps to pressure them to meet our demands,” said Mohammad Faeq, a 28-year-old protester.

Since October, around 460 people have lost their lives to protest-related violence and another 25,000 have been wounded, according to an AFP count.

Authorities do not provide updated casualty figures.

Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

Updated 9 min 29 sec ago

Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

  • Government figures disputed by health professionals who warn that several provinces bearing brunt of pandemic

ISTANBUL: Prayers at Hagia Sophia sparked new coronavirus cases in Turkey as preventive measures were not strictly followed during the congregational worship, according to health professionals.
Around 350,000 people swarmed the Hagia Sophia on July 24 and the area around it after the Byzantine-era landmark became a mosque again after functioning for decades as a museum.
Some of the 500 guests inside the mosque, including parliamentarians and journalists, have been diagnosed with the disease. There was a lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
The number of new daily COVID-19 cases began rising and exceeding 1,000 just after the Eid Al-Adha holidays. The government’s decision to withhold figures about the number of patients in intensive care and those who are intubated has increased concern about the country’s coronavirus reality.
Health professionals contacted by Arab News said the pandemic had worsened in the last month, and that the opening of Hagia Sophia for prayers without appropriate and tough precautions in place was a reason for the surge.
“Following the opening of Hagia Sophia, we also heard of many cases among politicians,” a doctor who preferred to remain anonymous told Arab News. “But it is because they go through a regular screening every three days in order to make sure they are healthy.”
The doctor, who works in a hospital in the central Anatolian province of Sivas, added: “If ordinary citizens also get a similar test, the real case rates will be higher. If things go on like this, there will be nobody in the hospital who is not infected … There might even be a shortage of medical personnel who either resign from the job or become sick.”
A “long list” of Muslim and Christian world leaders, including Pope Francis, were invited to the inaugural prayer at the Hagia Sofia, according to Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, who is a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “It seems like none of them attended the prayer, but coronavirus did,” he told Arab News.
Kocyildirim said that a visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Hagia Sophia the following week made it look like social distancing rules were hard to uphold inside the landmark due to the large crowds who wanted to see the president or take pictures.
“I believe those images made many health care professionals feel upset, as a sudden step like this might ruin the months-long efforts to contain the virus. While trust takes time to be established, it can be lost quickly,” he added.
Health professionals warned that several Anatolian provinces were bearing the brunt of the pandemic with a sharp rise in local cases since the beginning of June, when anti-contagion measures were relaxed and intercity travel as well as crowded wedding ceremonies were permitted.
Government reports of daily cases have been disputed by some health professionals and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), claiming that the actual daily figure is more than 3,000. The Health Ministry has also been criticized for ignoring the filiation method as a form of contact tracing among close relatives in order to artificially decrease the number of cases and open the way for tourism and the normalization of economic activity.
“When thousands of health professionals are fighting against the disease, and when dozens of citizens lose their lives because of the pandemic, everyone and especially public authorities should have been much more responsible,” Murat Emir, a parliamentarian from the main opposition Republican People’s Party and a doctor by profession, told Arab News.
“Unfortunately, during the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque, thousands of citizens gathered without respecting social distancing measures and wearing face masks. Various municipalities from Anatolia organized bus tours to this opening, and nobody knows whether they got an official code from the Health Ministry for domestic travel or sat with social distancing during transit.”
Emir warned that such gatherings where social distancing measures were not applied were enough to fuel the spread of COVID-19.
To date 5,858 people have died from the virus in Turkey, according to official figures, and the country is not yet on the list of safe travel countries regularly updated by the EU.