UN warns Baghdad to heed protesters' demands as violence continues

UN warns Baghdad to heed protesters' demands as violence continues
UN envoy Hennis-Plasschaert warned that attempts to buy time with 'band-aid solutions and coercive measures ... will only further fuel public anger and distrust.'
3 min read
03 December, 2019
Iraq has been gripped with a violent crackdown on protesters for weeks [Getty]
A UN envoy warned that the continued use of violence against civilians in Iraq is "intolerable" and called on Iraqi leaders to respond with urgency to the Iraqi people's aspirations for real change.

"Political leaders do not have the luxury of time and must rise to the moment," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN envoy to Iraq, said in a video presentation to the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

The envoy noted that more than 400 people have been killed and more than 19,000 injured in two months of unrest in Iraq that has pitted protesters demanding sweeping reform against security forces.

The remarks came after prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned in the face of a fresh wave of protests last week, and as Iraqi leaders were meeting in Baghdad on Tuesday to search for a way out of the crisis.

Hennis-Plasschaert warned that attempts to buy time with "band-aid solutions and coercive measures ... will only further fuel public anger and distrust."

"The vast majority of protesters are evidently peaceful," Hennis-Plasschaert said. "Any and all forms of violence are intolerable, and must not distract from the rightful demands for reform."

However, she said that despite a review of the rules of engagement to minimise the use of lethal force, "the harsh reality is that the use of live fire has not been abandoned."

"Non lethal devices - such as tear gas canisters - continue to be used improperly causing horrific injuries or death, ... unlawful arrests and detentions continue to take place - as do abductions, threats and intimidation," she said.

Demonstrators demanding reform have flooded the capital and the Shiite-majority south since October, in the largest grassroots movement the country has witnessed in years.

Seen as a threat to the ruling elite, rallies were met with violence from security forces and armed groups, leaving more than 420 people dead and nearly 20,000 wounded - the vast majority demonstrators. 

Iraqi politicians and their regional allies gathered in Baghdad to discuss how to resolve two months of protests that brought down the government amid continued violence across southern cities.

Among those attending the negotiations are two key allies of Iraq's main Shia parties: Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Qasem Soleimani and Lebanese power-broker Mohammad Kawtharany, a high-ranking political source told AFP.

"Soleimani is in Baghdad to push for a particular candidate to succeed Abdel Mahdi," the source said, without providing details.

Kawtharany, who is Lebanese militant group Hezbollah's pointman on Iraq, "is also playing a large role in persuading Shia and Sunni political forces on this", the source added.

Political powers in Shia-majority Iraq have long had close ties with counterparts in Iran and Lebanon. 

The United States said Soleimani's presence showed that its archfoe Iran was again "interfering" in Iraq.

Parties are considering a six-month "transitional" cabinet to oversee electoral reform before an early parliamentary vote, government and political sources told AFP.

Read more: The Iraq Report: The prime minister falls but the system remains

A new electoral law is a key protest demand and is now a centrepiece of proposed reforms, with parliamentary blocs expected to discuss it on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, protests and a violent crackdown on demonstrators continue. 

Despite the oil wealth of OPEC's second-biggest producer, one in five Iraqis lives in poverty and youth unemployment stands at one quarter, the World Bank says.

Protesters say such problems require more deep-rooted solutions than the resignation of Abdel Mahdi, the first premier to step down since Iraq installed a parliamentary system after Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003.

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