ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Military leaders pledged on Tuesday to refrain from using live ammunition on protesters in the second week in which thousands have taken to the streets of Iraq in a public outcry against chronic lack of services, unemployment, and poor living conditions.
The demonstrations, strongest in the provinces of Basra, Dhi Qar, Maysan, Karbala, Babil, and Baghdad, have sometimes been violent. Protesters say casualties are now in the hundreds and have been caused primarily by Iraqi security forces, though statements on Tuesday by two Iraqi ministries appeared to contradict both claims.
At a press conference in Baghdad, Ministry of Defense (MOD) spokesman Yahya Rasool said troops had been ordered not to open fire to disperse demonstrators, but would “not tolerate” aggression toward security forces or government buildings.
As has been the case with other recent official Iraqi announcements, Rasool was quick to paint the protests in a negative light by claiming "saboteurs" had infiltrated the crowds and were influencing those around them.
A MOD statement released on the same day spoke of those "lurking who are trying to distort the civilized image of the demonstrations."
After a special meeting held on Monday night to deal with the current situation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and leading political parties said they recognized Iraqis' right to public protest, but also blamed "seditious elements" for their role in the demonstrations.
The MOD statement continued by claiming that 262 security force members had been wounded in protests, "some of them are in critical condition, and this confirms the keenness of the security services in dealing peacefully with demonstrators."
Not all security forces have made the same efforts to assure others of their intentions to be even-handed when dealing with protesters. On Tuesday, a senior member of an Iranian-backed militia publicly threatened protestors if attacks on their offices continued, saying, "The hands that attack our offices will be cut off immediately."
Protest organizers have claimed various numbers of casualties, but it has been difficult to confirm conflicting numbers from different official and non-official sources, in part because internet service and social media has been largely cut off in Iraq since shortly after demonstrations began.
"Currently there are 56 wounded and 8 deaths, two of them in Basra, two in Najaf, three in Samawah and one in Karbala last night," Iraqi Health Ministry Spokesperson Saif Al-Bader said in a press conference on Wednesday.
"More than 90 percent of those hurt had minor injuries," he said, and then gave a number that seemed to not fully agree with the percentage given. "Seven of them are in serious condition."