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Fear spreads among Iraqi protesters as government cracks down, keeps death toll secret

By LOUISA LOVELUCK AND MUSTAFA SALIM | The Washington Post | Published: November 12, 2019

BAGHDAD — For more than a month, Iraq's protesters have withstood bullets and stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons, as they chanted, danced and called for the ouster of the entire political system.

The political class scrambled, then it closed ranks, and with crowds now shrinking and state violence undimmed, tendrils of fear are creeping through the protest movement. Strange men appear in the tents, take photographs and then leave. Police tell activists they manage to arrest it is in their best interests to inform on friends.

More than 319 people have been killed and 15,000 wounded since anti-government demonstrations began in Baghdad and southern cities on Oct. 1, according to the country's human rights commission.

As crowds start to thin, a broader crackdown is starting. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested. Volunteer medics have disappeared on their way to Baghdad's Tahrir Square, not heard from since.

In dozens of interviews, protesters and medics described intelligence officers and unknown individuals appearing in tents full of friends, taking photographs on cellphones and leaving. Activists showed messages on their phone, advising them to go home or making blunter threats.

"Everyone is scared now, but we have to stay," said Ghaith Mohamed, 28, sitting in a tent of fellow protesters and surrounded by pictures eulogizing a close friend, Safaa al-Saray, who was killed on Oct. 28 by a shot to the head with a military-grade tear gas canister.

"Going home is giving up and risking kidnap by the security forces. We are willing to stay and die here for our rights," he said.

The protests, initially quashed in early October before resuming again weeks later, have grown into a generational clash between young Iraqis raised in the shadow of the U.S.-led invasion and the political elites who profited from an electoral system the United States helped mold. Addressing a youth population experiencing widespread unemployment in an oil-rich state, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih have promised fresh jobs and legislative amendments.

On the streets their words have been met with disbelief.

"They promise changes every time we protest, but it's not a new law or a concession that we want. It's our rights. It's a fundamental change in how we're governed," said Ali Saleh, a student protester in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. "They didn't know what to do with us at first, but now they are making it very clear."

The unrest has unsettled Iraq's power brokers, initially convincing the prime minister to prepare a resignation speech before backers in Baghdad and Tehran convinced him not to deliver it, according to three officials close to him who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issues. In the weeks that followed, groups from across Iraq's political spectrum have closed ranks with an agreement to protect the system.

"Everyone is behind the prime minister. If he leaves, there will be chaos, and no one wants that," said Izaat al-Shahbander, an informal adviser to Abdul Mahdi.

Long-standing observers offered a different interpretation. "No longer able to rely on empty promises, Baghdad's elite are returning to a familiar strategy to smother the existential threat that this popular mobilization represents: violence," wrote Omar Sirri and Renad Mansour, both analysts focused on Iraq.

Caught in the middle is the country's leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. After a meeting with him Monday, Iraq's top U.N. official, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said the cleric was concerned the country's political parties were not serious enough about enacting real reforms.

Sistani "made it clear [he] supports the conduct of serious reforms in a reasonable period of time," Hennis-Plasschaert told a news conference after the meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

In Tahrir Square Monday night, the protesters' signs reflected his words. "Protesters can't go home until the government fulfills our demands," read one.

In a statement a day earlier, the White House said it was "seriously concerned" about the ongoing violence and attacks appearing to target leading activists.

The extent of the bloodshed remains unclear. Medics and human rights officials said the prime minister's office has barred hospitals from sharing full casualty figures with official bodies documenting the violence. Representatives from local morgues also said they were banned from sharing information about the number of bodies they had received.

Photographs of the dead are plastered across corners of Tahrir Square. Nearby streets and bridges, where clashes have raged in recent days, are littered with 40 mm canisters, which contained tear gas and toxic smoke. Markings on the canisters, as well as their packaging and crates, identified the weapons as Iranian made, according to Adam Rawnsley, a contributor to the Bellingcat open-source documentation network, who focuses on Iranian weapons. Researchers say they were probably transferred to Iraqi forces during the fight against the Islamic State.

"We have never seen these grenades being used in this volume, in this way, or in any sort of civilian protest," said Brian Castner, Amnesty International's Senior Crisis Adviser on Arms and Military Operations. "The [casualty] photos are almost unshareable. These are truly gruesome deaths."

Weighing between five and 10 times heavier than standard canisters used for crowd control, these grenades have been fired directly at the heads and chests of protesters, according to doctors in a Baghdad hospital, smashing skulls and killing at least 31 people on impact.

In a makeshift clinic on the edge of Tahrir Square, a volunteer medic and former intelligence officer weighed one of the canisters in the palm of his hand. "Listen, we used to use this stuff against the Islamic State. We'd throw them into a building with fighters in it and not care because they were the enemy," he said, placing the canister down with a thud. "These were never meant for crowd control, these were never meant for civilians."

On his cellphone were a stream of messages, apparently from state authorities, requesting more information about other protesters.

"That's all they're asking for right now," he said. "Names, details of the people who are here."

As official death tolls are suppressed, medics across Baghdad, and interviewed by phone from Iraq's southern cities, said protesters were increasingly frightened to go to hospital, fearing surveillance or arrest. In a Tahrir Square tent, a young man writhed and strained in the fetal position as blood seeped through his bandages.

"He needs urgent treatment but he is too scared to go with the ambulance," said one doctor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. "No one feels safe to leave here, so we'll stay."

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