Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A few hundred Iraqis gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir square on Thursday to mark the anniversary of anti-government unrest that erupted last year and to put pressure on the government to meet their demands.

Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries, we will continue the path.”

Some sang patriotic songs while clapping.

“We are here to start the revolution again … We haven’t forgotten about the blood of the martyrs,” said Abbas Younis, 25, wearing an Iraqi flag as a cape and a surgical mask.

More than 560 people, mostly unarmed demonstrators but also some members of the security forces, have been killed since a wave of popular unrest began on Oct. 1, 2019, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.

Protesters, most of them young, are demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty.

The protests have shaken the country out of two years of relative calm following the defeat of Islamic State insurgents.

Infighting between political parties clinging to power has fuelled the crisis and threatens to cause more unrest.

Last year’s protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was replaced in May by Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who pledged to investigate the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of protesters.

But protesters on Thursday said they are giving the new government an ultimatum to meet their demands by Oct. 25.

“Our demands are simple and legitimate … we demand the killers of the protesters be prosecuted,” said Mustafa Makki.

Dressed in combat trousers and wearing a shirt with an image of a killed protester and a necklace made out of an empty tear gas canisters, the 24-year-old said he had four bullet wounds, and one of them had cost him his vision in his left eye.

“Within 25 days if the government doesn’t meet our demands we will hold a general strike,” Makki added.

Kadhimi in July called an early general election for June 6, 2021, roughly a year ahead of when it would normally be held, a key demand of the protesters. But Iraqi’s parliament must still ratify the election date and amend the election law.

In separate statements on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih pledged to meet the demands of the protesters.

“We affirm our loyalty to our people and to the roadmap imposed by the blood and scarifies of its youth,” Kadhimi’s statement said.

(Reporting by Amina Ismail, additional reporting by Charlotte Bruneau; editing by David Evans)

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