Iraqis rally against government after activist killed

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraqis turned out Monday to mourn a prominent activist gunned down the previous evening, the latest violent episode in anti-government demonstrations in which more than 450 people have died.

Adding to the tension, a volley of rockets wounded six Iraqi soldiers on a military base near the Baghdad airport hosting US troops and American diplomats.

Iraq's capital and its Shiite-majority south have been gripped by more than two months of rallies against corruption, poor public services and a lack of jobs.

One prominent civil society activist, Fahem al-Tai, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Iraq's shrine city of Karbala late Sunday while returning home from protests.

Hundreds joined his funeral procession Monday, carrying 53-year-old Tai's coffin through the city streets.

"We will not forget our martyrs," read one sign carried by tearful protesters.

His death came just days after an attack on a protest encampment in Baghdad left 20 demonstrators and four police officers dead, sparking nationwide outrage.

Gunmen had stormed a parking complex near the capital's iconic Tahrir Square where anti-regime youths have been camped out since early October.

Although the violence raged for hours, government security forces deployed nearby did not intervene.

The British, French and German ambassadors to Iraq condemned the attack in a meeting with caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, who resigned on December 1.

"No armed group should be able to operate outside of the control of the state," the envoys said in a statement, urging the government to "urgently investigate".

- Hashed ordered to stay away -

The envoys pressed the government to implement its recent order that the Hashed al-Shaabi security force "stay away from protest locations".

The Hashed, founded in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group, is made up of mostly-Shiite factions, many of which have been backed by Iran.

The network is incorporated into Iraq's state security apparatus and its head, Faleh al-Fayyadh, is also the national security advisor to the prime minister.

After protests broke out in October, the Hashed initially backed the government but switched sides as Abdel Mahdi came under growing pressure from the street and Iraq's Shiite religious authority.

Protesters have been wary of the Hashed, however, fearing their presence in the rallies could derail their cause.

Following Friday's attack, Fayyadh ordered Hashed factions to keep their distance from the rallies.

In addition to those killed, dozens of protesters went missing after the attack on the parking complex and have yet to resurface, their relatives told AFP.

Demonstrators have for weeks complained of being monitored, threatened and harassed in an intimidation campaign meant to keep them from pursuing their movement.

In one particularly gruesome case last week, the bruised body of 19-year-old Zahra Ali was left outside her family home in Baghdad, hours after she had gone missing.

On Friday, relatives of Zeid al-Khafaji, a 22-year-old photographer, said he had been abducted while returning from Tahrir Square in the capital.

- New rocket attacks -

Since October 1, the youth-led rallies have not only accused the ruling class of being inept and corrupt but also of being heavily influenced by neighbouring Iran.

Baghdad has close ties with both Tehran and its arch-foe Washington, which led the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Some 5,200 US troops are still based across Iraq and are facing a spike in rocket attacks on their positions.

There have been at least nine attacks against US targets in Iraq in the span of six weeks.

The latest in the early hours of Monday saw four rockets slam into an Iraqi base that hosts a small contingent of US forces next to Baghdad International Airport.

Six Iraqi troops were wounded, according to the military.

Security sources said they belong to the Counter-Terrorism Service, an elite unit created and trained by US forces.

No American forces were wounded in the recent salvoes.

And while there have been no claims of responsibility, US defence officials have blamed several of the attacks on Iran-backed factions in Iraq.

Tensions between Iran and the US have soared since last year, when Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran and reimposed crippling sanctions.

Baghdad -- whose many security forces have been trained by either the US or Iran -- is worried about being caught in the middle of the bitter dispute.

Iraqi officials are meanwhile also struggling with their domestic political crisis.

President Barham Saleh has until December 17 to name a replacement premier, and political parties are deep in talks to agree on a consensus candidate.