BAGHDAD: Security forces shot live rounds to clear protest hotspots in Baghdad and southern Iraq for a second day Sunday, sparking skirmishes with demonstrators determined to keep up their movement. Violence has resurged in the capital and Shiite-majority south this week, with more than 15 people killed as anti-government activists ramped up their road closures and sit-ins while security forces sought to snuff out the campaign. On Saturday, four protesters were shot dead as riot police stormed protest camps across the country, according to medics, stoking fears of a broader crackdown. But the demonstrators returned in large numbers throughout the evening and by Sunday morning, they were rallying again. In Basra, hundreds of students protested over riot police’s dismantling of their main protest camp the previous day, according to an AFP correspondent. Others gathered in the holy city of Najaf and university students led a protest in Kut, where they erected new tents to replace those taken down the previous day. In Baghdad, young demonstrators on Saturday flooded their main encampment at Tahrir Square and security forces continued using live rounds the next morning in a bid to disperse small rallies in nearby Khallani and Wathba squares. That left at least 17 protesters wounded, a police source told AFP, but security forces stopped short of entering Tahrir Square. University students were planning to march on Sunday from a Baghdad campus to Tahrir Square, and other student-led rallies are planned for this week. The young demonstrators have mostly thrown rocks at riot police but some have tossed Molotov cocktails. In Nasiriyah to the south, security forces Sunday also fired live rounds to disperse protesters, who were angered by authorities pushing them out of thoroughfares around their main protest camp in Habbubi Square. At least 50 protesters suffered bullet wounds and around 100 were impacted by tear gas in brief skirmishes, a medical source told AFP. The youth-dominated protests erupted on October 1 in outrage over lack of jobs, poor services and rampant corruption. They spiralled into outraged calls for a government overhaul after they were met with violence. Protesters are now specifically demanding snap elections, the appointment of an independent premier and the prosecution of anyone implicated in corruption or recent bloodshed. Parliament has passed a new electoral law and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi submitted his resignation in December, but he still serves in a caretaker role and authorities have otherwise failed to act on the protesters’ demands. “Unaccountability and indecisiveness are unworthy of Iraqi hopes, courageously expressed for four months now,” the United Nations’ top Iraq official, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said on Saturday. “While death and injury tolls continue to rise, steps taken so far will remain hollow if not completed.” Activists have long worried that their movement could be snuffed out after firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr dropped his support on Friday. The notoriously fickle militia leader-turned-politician backed the protests when they first started and called on the government to resign — even though he controls the largest bloc in parliament and top ministerial posts. Sadr’s supporters had widely been recognized as the best-organized and well-stocked protesters in Tahrir. But after holding an anti-US rally in Baghdad on Friday that was attended by thousands, Sadr said he no longer wanted to be involved in the separate regime change movement. Within hours, his supporters were dismantling their tents in protest camps across the country and riot police began moving in. Analysts said Sadr was striving to both maintain his street credibility and win favor with Iraq’s powerful neighbor Iran. Sadr has complex ties with Iran. He is completing advanced religious studies in the holy city of Qom, but has often worked against Iranian-backed parties in Iraqi politics. Iran holds tremendous political and military sway in Iraq and will likely have a major say in who Abdel Mahdi’s replacement will be. Talks over the next premier remain at a stalemate in Baghdad in the absence of two key brokers — Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi military powerhouse Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Both were killed in a US drone strike on Baghdad on January 3, which outraged Iraq and fueled calls for the 5,200 US troops deployed there to leave.
BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces have reached the outskirts of a key city on the edge of the country’s last rebel-held stronghold, a monitor and a pro-government newspaper said Sunday. The mainly deserted city of Maaret Al-Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 linking Damascus to Syria’s second city Aleppo, a main highway coveted by the regime as it seeks to regain control of the entire country. It is one of the largest urban centers in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and currently home to some three million people — half of them displaced by violence in other areas. The regime and its Russian ally have escalated their bombardment against the militant-dominated region since December, carrying out hundreds of air strikes in southern Idlib and the west of neighboring Aleppo province. Over the past 24 hours, government ground forces have seized seven villages on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Numan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said Sunday. They have now reached “the edges of the city and are... within gunfire range of part of the highway,” it said. Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported that loyalist forces were “just around the corner” from the city, whose “doors are wide open.” Idlib and nearby areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakiya provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militant group, led by members of the country’s former Al-Qaeda franchise. The regime of President Bashar Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria, despite several cease-fire agreements. An AFP correspondent says Maaret Al-Numan has become a ghost town. Assad’s forces, which are also battling HTS militants in western Aleppo province, are backed on both fronts by Syrian and Russian air strikes. The fighting has left dozens of fighters dead on both sides. Since 1 December, some 358,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, the vast majority of them women and children, according to the United Nations. A cease-fire announced by Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but the truce never took hold. Aid agencies and relief groups have warned that further violence could fuel what may potentially become the largest wave of displacement seen during Syria’s nine-year-old civil war. Syrian government forces now control around 70 percent of the country and Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib.