Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered police to launch a swift probe into the deaths of two protesters during clashes with security forces in the capital Baghdad on the weekend.
Human rights monitors and officials reported Monday that two people had lost their lives after a protest at Baghdad’s Tahrir Sqaure over the Arab country’s economic woes turned violent overnight.
It was the first such deadly incident at Tahrir Square since Kadhimi took office in May. The site became a symbol of anti-government protests during last year’s mass rallies.
The protesters chanted slogans against worsening public services and power cuts during a heat wave that has sent temperatures soaring above 50 degrees Celsius.
Iraqi security forces tried to disperse the crowd by firing tear gas and live ammunition. The demonstrators, in turn, threw stones and petrol bombs.
Police said over 26 protesters and several security forces had been wounded during the confrontation.
In a statement on Twitter late Sunday, Iraq’s military spokesman Yahya Rasool said an investigation was underway into the deaths, and that security forces were under orders not to use force unless absolutely necessary.
“The protesters are our brothers and our sons, just as the security forces charged with protecting them,” he said. “Attacks on either side are something we will investigate.”
The Iraqi premier later addressed the deadly protest at a meeting with security commanders and the interior minister on Monday.
Kadhimi told the law enforcement and security officials that the facts surrounding “unfortunate events” at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square must be clarified and presented within 72 hours.
“Peaceful demonstrations are a right guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution, with the government and security services obliged to support them (the peaceful rallies) and listen to the demands of the protesters,” he said.
The meeting also addressed reports of abductions and killings of individuals, especially the demonstrators, during protests, calling on Iraqi security bodies to prioritize the prosecution of those behind such crimes.
It further called on the demonstrators to cooperate with police in arresting the suspicious elements who want the protesters to deviate from the pursuit of their legitimate demands.
Separately on Monday, the Iraqi premier said in a televised speech that protests “are a legitimate right and the security forces do not have the permission to fire even one bullet in the direction of the protesters.”
Since October 2019, Iraqi people have staged street protests in several cities over unemployment and a lack of basic services, calling for economic reforms and a meaningful fight against corruption in state institutions.
Reports say some 550 people were killed and 30,000 injured as the anti-government rallies took a violent turn.
The protests led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was replaced by Kadhimi in May following months of political deadlock.
Kadhimi has promised dialog with the protesters and justice for those killed or wounded during the demonstrations, which have lost steam in recent months amid a coronavirus outbreak.