Iraqi security forces launched an aggressive crackdown on anti-government demonstrators on Saturday, killing at least six people and injuring more than 100 others in central Baghdad.
Government authorities used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters and to retake three bridges that cross the Tigris River to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the Iraqi parliament is headquartered. The bridges were being occupied by the demonstrators demanding sweeping political reforms and an end of corruption.
Since the clashes started last month, more than 300 protesters have been killed and 15,000 others wounded, according to the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq.
Middle East scholars have called the unrest the largest grassroots movement in Iraq’s modern history, but human rights advocates continued to raise concern over how security forces have resorted to violent tactics.
“This is turning into nothing short of a bloodbath – all government promises of reforms or investigations ring hollow while security forces continue to shoot and kill protesters,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director. “Those responsible for it must be brought to justice.”
The demonstrators, who began taking to the streets in early October, were at first lashing out over unemployment, government corruption and poor public services, but the protests have since demanded a breakup of the politically entrenched sectarian system that took shape after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In particular, demonstrators have been accusing Iran and Iran-backed politicians of exerting influence in Iraq, since Iran has strong links to Iraqi security and intelligence forces.
The government crackdown did reduce the numbers of protesters over the weekend, but authorities have been unable to fully quell the unrest among mostly unemployed youth, who have been taking to the streets to object to the country’s political class.
Those who remained were emboldened and determined to be seen and heard, some throwing Molotov cocktails toward security forces.
On Saturday, Abdul-Mahdi released a statement saying the demands for electoral reforms will be met.
“We consider the peaceful protests of our people as among the most important events since 2003,” Abdul-Mahdi said.
Abdul-Mahdi, just a year in office, has agreed to step down following the naming of his successor.
Iraq’s President Barham Salih is pushing for elections once parliament successfully advances a new election law.
The reforms may cut the number of members parliament, who are viewed as collecting hefty salaries but rarely appear for sessions, just as tens of millions across Iraq live in poverty.