BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Wednesday announced a cabinet reshuffle, declared three days of national mourning and said those who shot protesters would be punished as he sought to quell anti-government unrest that has roiled Iraq for days.
Authorities fear that violence, which has killed more than 110 people, mostly protesters angry at government corruption, could spiral, leading war-weary Iraq towards more civil strife.
Protests erupted in Baghdad last week and soon spread to southern cities. Abdul Mahdi’s government has sought to address demonstrators’ grievances.
However, a package of reforms announced by the government -- including more job opportunities, subsidies and housing -- is unlikely to satisfy Iraqis; nor is a cabinet reshuffle, likely to feature many of the same faces despised by protesters as an out-of-touch political elite.
“We will ask parliament to vote tomorrow on changes to ministries,” Abdul Mahdi said at a news conference, adding that the government would be referring the names of hundreds of corrupt officials to the judiciary for investigation.
Abdul Mahdi’s government will seek to weather the storm, however, backed by powerful Iran-aligned armed groups and political factions determined to preserve the status quo.
Authorities have used an internet blackout, arrests of protesters and targeting of reporters to try to stem further unrest.
At least 110 people have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the capital and the south, since the security forces started cracking down on demonstrators. Reuters journalists have witnessed protesters killed and wounded by shots fired by snipers from rooftops into the crowd.
Abdul Mahdi said that the government did not give orders to shoot.
“We gave clear orders not to use live fire but there were still victims of shooting,” Abdul Mahdi said, adding that it was wrong to damage the country.
Much of the unrest has been at night, but on Wednesday morning there were no reports of serious violence overnight. Authorities on Wednesday reopened the road leading to Baghdad’s Tayaran Square, scene of bloody protests in recent days.
However, the security forces pressed on with their crackdown, arresting protesters after nightfall on Tuesday in eastern and northwestern parts of Baghdad, police sources told Reuters.
Police carried recent photographs of protesters to identify and arrest them, the sources said.
Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights also said about 500 people had been released from the 800 detained last week.
Intermittent access to internet returned on Wednesday morning, and protesters continued to upload video and photos from the demonstrations. The government shut down coverage almost immediately as protests began, according to an order by the prime minister seen by Reuters.
The offices of local and international media were attacked last week, and journalists have said they were warned not to cover the protests. With the internet down, there was little coverage of the protests on television.
Ministers met provincial governors, to address grievances across the country, which include crumbling infrastructure, toxic water and high unemployment. But proposed reforms, some of which have been recycled from a package of proposed reforms after protests in 2015, are unlikely to ease public anger.
The unrest shattered nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq, since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the recent violence and urged Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to exercise maximum restraint and address protesters’ grievances, the U.S. State Department said.
Reporting by John Davison in Baghdad and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff
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