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Iraqi workers and students go on strike in show of strength against 'corrupt' government

Iraqis went on strike across Baghdad and southern Iraq [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 November, 2019

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Iraqi protesters have faced off against a violent crackdown by security forces that has killed hundreds.
Iraqis flooded the streets of the capital and southern cities on Sunday in a general strike that bolstered the weeks-long movement demanding a government overhaul.

Protesters in Baghdad were joined by hundreds of teenagers who skipped class to join the strike.

Sit-ins have become the go-to tactic for the rallies that erupted in early October in rage over corruption, a lack of jobs and an out-of-touch political class.

They have resisted efforts by security forces to snuff them out and on Sunday, thousands came out across the country after activists called for a general strike.

In Baghdad hundreds of students skipped class to gather in Tahrir Square, the beating heart of the mass protest movement.

"No politics, no parties, this is a student awakening!" read one banner carried by young Iraqis.

Security forces had pulled back from their positions along that street early on Saturday, allowing demonstrators to spill out into those neighbourhoods and onto the nearby Al-Sinek bridge.

They immediately set up tents on a first segment of the bridge, facing off against riot police stationed behind two layers of thick concrete blast walls. 

Just beyond those barriers was the embassy of neighbouring Iran, which protesters have criticised for helping to prop up the government they want to bring down.

Negotiations to keep Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi in power and crush the protesters were reportedly helmed by Qasem Soleimani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' foreign arm.

Striking workers and students march in Baghdad on Sunday [AFP]

"We students are here to help the other protesters, and we won't retreat a single step," said one teenager.

Speaking anonymously because he said he had been threatened for his involvement in the anti-government movement, he said hundreds of teenagers had skipped class.

Nearby, a volunteer medic in plastic surgeons' gloves urged labourers across Iraq to join the strike. 

"Everyone should have a time set aside to take part in the protest," he said.

In the southern protest hotspots of Kut, Najaz, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah, schools and government offices were shut as swelling crowds hit the streets.

Protesters cut roads in the southern port cit of Basra by burning tyres, and in Hillah, south of Baghdad, students and other activists massed in front of the provincial headquarters.

"We'll keep up our protest and general strike with all Iraqis until we force the government to resign," said Hassaan al-Tufan, a lawyer and activist.

Abdul Mahdi's government has proposed a range of reforms in recent week but demonstrators have brushed them off as too little, too late in a country ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

Extreme violence meted out against protesters by Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias has also weakened trust in promises of reform. More than 300 protesters have been killed by live fire and tear gas.

"These steps, these reforms are just an opiate for the masses. Nothing more, nothing less," another protester said on Sunday.

Pointing across the river to the area where parliament, the premier's office and other key buildings are, he insisted the protesters wanted "new faces." 

"There are so many capable young people in Iraq who are deprived - and unfortunately those are the guys that rule us?" he said. 

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