BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi security forces clashed with anti-government demonstrators in Baghdad on Sunday with at least 39 people, most of them police officers, injured by projectiles unleashed from each side, security officials said.
Police sources said tear gas canisters being fired by security forces had injured at least seven people.
A separate statement from a military spokesman said at least 32 members of the security forces were injured by hand grenades thrown by a group he suggested had hidden among otherwise peaceful protesters, without elaborating.
Politicians have expressed concern at the possibility of peaceful protests being hijacked by rioters, which could set off a spiral of violence such as that witnessed last year.
Renewed anti-government rallies converged on Sunday to mark a year since mass unrest over corruption and widespread deprivation in oil-rich Iraq. More than 500 people have been killed in the disturbances.
Threats, killings and abductions of activists, as well as fatigue and lockdown restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, took the steam out of months-long protests earlier this year. Demonstrators numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands on Sunday.
Earlier in the day, police fired water cannon and tear gas at protesters to prevent them crossing barricades on a bridge leading towards government buildings.
“We will not stop protesting to demand our stolen rights. We are the victims of corrupted governments,” said Najim Abdullah, a protester standing near the Jumhuriya bridge in the capital.
Security forces had deployed in force to control protests that began in the morning, and to stop demonstrators crossing Jumhuriya bridge, which leads to the fortified Green Zone that houses government buildings and foreign missions.
Sunday’s protests were more subdued than demonstrations last year where thousands rallied in Baghdad and the south, facing off against security forces and militiamen in clashes that maimed and killed mostly young, jobless demonstrators.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who took office in May after his predecessor was driven out by last year’s unrest, has painted himself as a leader who supports demonstrators.
In a televised address on Saturday he pledged to hold early and fair elections, a demand of many pro-democracy activists, and said security forces would this time around not harm any peaceful protesters.
Security forces and unidentified gunmen carried out a fierce crackdown on anti-government disturbances that erupted in October 2019, killing hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters using live gunfire and tear gas.
Protesters accuse the entrenched ruling elite, especially Iranian-backed parties and militia groups, of fuelling endemic graft that kept large swathes of the country in ruins even during times of relative peace.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Atie in Basra; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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