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Iraqis continue street protests despite C-19 threat

Anti-government demonstrators are undeterred by coronavirus as they protest against corruption and foreign interference in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, and Nasiriyah. WIL CRISP reports

IRAQI protesters have said they will continue their anti-government demonstrations despite mounting concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and a brutal crackdown by security forces.

Hundreds of protesters calling for an end to corruption and foreign interference are continuing to occupy strategic sites in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, and Nasiriyah after several government warnings about the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We risk instant death at the hands of the security forces every day — so we aren’t worried about the virus,” said Ali Ahmed, a 24-year-old protester camped out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

Since anti-government protests broke out in Iraq on October 1 last year more than 600 protesters have been killed in clashes across the country.

More than 18,000 are estimated to have been wounded, and the number continues to climb daily as protesters clash with riot police.

Security forces are using shotguns to blind and kill protesters, despite the UN issuing a statement condemning the use of so-called “birdshot ammunition” on peaceful demonstrations.

So far this month the most violent clashes have been over the occupation of Khilani Square in downtown Baghdad, where at least three people have died and more than 100 have been wounded.

“The death of so many of our friends has only made us more determined not to give up until real reforms are in place,” said Ahmed.

Iraq had more than 300 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 29 deaths as of March 25. Amid mounting concerns about the virus, authorities shut cafes and restaurants in Baghdad, and movement between cities has been restricted.

Earlier this month, a team of medical officials and police officers attempting to disinfect protest sites in the city of Nasiriyah were refused access by demonstrators, who said they believed that it was a tactic to try to end the demonstrations.

Nasiriyah, Iraq’s fourth-biggest city, was one of the key incubators of the protest movement and has suffered the highest number of demonstration fatalities of any site outside of Baghdad.

After repeated attempts to burn down their tents, demonstrators in the city centre resorted to building structures out of breeze blocks and cement.

“We’re not going to be tricked into giving up the progress we have made,” said Hamid Enad, a protester in Nasiriyah, who first took to the streets on October 1.

Many protesters believe that Nasiriyah’s hot weather should prevent a large-scale outbreak of the virus in the city, though there is no conclusive medical evidence to support this theory.

Iraq is facing political and economic crisis amid low oil prices and deadlock over the selection of a new prime minister.

At the same time, it is suffering a surge in military attacks within its borders due to escalating tensions between Iran and the US.

Three US troops and several Iraqis were wounded on March 14 in a rocket attack on the Taji military base north of Baghdad.

The attack forms part of an escalating cycle of reprisals that includes several US air strikes on facilities linked to the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which took place on March 13.

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