Targeted killings up as 8 wounded in Iraq protest violence

Anti-government protesters continue to shutdown a key highway in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters stage a sit-in at Tahrir Square during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Anti-government protesters continue to shutdown a key highway in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Protesters stage a sit-in at Tahrir Square during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Government inaction over the rising number of assassinations targeting anti-government demonstrators and supporters is stirring fear and resentment, activists said Thursday. Iraqi security forces, meanwhile, fired tear gas to disperse protesters on a vital Baghdad highway, injuring eight.

The latest episode of unrest comes one day ahead of a planned “million-man" march called for by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to push for the removal of foreign troops from Iraq. The march has garnered support from other mainstream Shiite political parties irate over a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general on Iraqi soil.

Iraq's anti-government protesters recently escalated demonstrations to divert public attention back to pressing domestic issues after soaring U.S.-Iran tensions following the strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The strike sent officials scrambling to contain the fallout and prompted a vote in Iraq's parliament, albeit non-binding, in favor of ousting U.S. troops from the country. Now in its fourth month, protesters are calling for new executive leadership and widespread reforms, including electoral reform.

At least 12 people have died since protesters intensified their campaign of civil disobedience last week by burning tires and cutting roads and rallying larger crowds to join their movement, according to figures from medical and security officials in Baghdad and Iraq's south, as well as activists. Over 500 have been killed since Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets, under fire from security forces.

On Thursday, at least eight protesters were injured when security forces fired tear gas to disperse crowds on the vital Mohammed al-Qassim highway, medical and security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The artery has been the focus of recent protest violence. The highway connects areas in Baghdad’s Rusafa, a district to the east of the Tigris River. On Tuesday, clashes on the thoroughfare broke out when riot police moved in to disperse a crowd of mostly young men who had gathered there.

The recent escalation coincided with an rise in targeted assassinations of protesters, as well as medics and journalists covering demonstrations, according to activists in Baghdad and southern Iraq and medical and security officials. Activists requested anonymity fearing reprisal from authorities, while officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to media.

At least four people have been killed by unknown groups in the last two weeks, all in southern Iraq. In each instance plainclothes men in passing cars had shot killed victims.

Activists in southern Iraq said the lack of follow-through on the part of security forces to investigate the targeted killings was exacerbating an atmosphere of mistrust between protesters and the authorities. Protesters largely blame Iran-backed militia groups for carrying out the attacks.

One protester was shot dead overnight Wednesday in the southern city of Basra, according to a medical official and an activist, after gunmen fired at him from a passing car.

On Tuesday, medic Jinan al-Shahmani was killed and three other medics wounded in a drive-by shooting near Basra's al-Fayhaa hospital. Two weeks before, Iraqi journalists Ahmed Abdul Samad, a Dijlah TV reporter, and Safaa Ghali, his cameraman — known for their coverage of the protests — were found shot dead in a car parked near a police station.

The Interior Ministry has launched an investigation into the incidents, said one ministry official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Activists in Basra and the southern city of Nasiriya said the rising number of incidents compounded with inaction on the part of security forces was creating panic and fear.

“All of the assassinations that have taken place in Basra, from killings to disappearances, happened in front of the security forces or they occurred in the center of the city in proximity to security forces," said one activist in Basra, who requested anonymity fearing reprisal.

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Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed from Baghdad.