Iraqi protesters defiant in face of deadly crackdown

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi protesters said Wednesday that an intensifying crackdown by authorities has been instilling fear and reducing turnout, but said they were remaining defiant and have called for people to return to the street in large numbers later this week.

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Protesters told The Associated Press that many felt intimidated by cases of disappearances and arbitrary arrests and had stopped showing up to demonstrations, fearful of retaliation.

“The government is working for itself and not for the people,” said Duraid Salman, 37, an Iraqi baker who has been camped out in Tahrir Square since Oct. 25. He said he bakes bread for 6,000 to 7,000 protesters a day, which he gives out for free.

“The only thing that worries me are the detentions, which hurt our morale,” he said, speaking inside a large tent where he stays, baking with the assistance of several women.

Tahrir Square in central Baghdad has emerged as an epicenter of the anti-government protests. At least 320 people have died and thousands wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when angry protesters took to the streets in the thousands outraged by perceptions of widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor delivery of basic services, including electricity cuts, despite the country’s vast oil wealth.

The protesters have so far rejected government proposals for economic and constitutional reforms and are calling on the entire political leadership to resign, including the Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

In a phone call with Abdul-Mahdi the previous evening, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he “deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force, as well as the reports of kidnapped protesters,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.

Demonstrations have been largely limited to Tahrir Square since Iraqi security forces began implementing tougher measures to suppress the demonstrations.

Still, the protesters said they are calling for over two million people to take to the streets this coming Friday.

“I have nothing to fear,” said Um Abdullah Taha, a 43-year-old government employee. “The number of demonstrators may have diminished, but this generation will not die.”

Iraqi authorities began clamping down on public demonstrations last week by pushing protesters back from three bridges spanning the Tigris River toward the fortified Green Zone. That’s where the seat of government and a host of foreign embassies are located.

Protesters in Tahrir Square appeared to be more organized on Wednesday, having set up a network of tents offering food and medical services.

To tackle protester demands, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq proposed a roadmap which included anti-corruption and electoral reform measures, which won the backing of influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

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Associated Press writer Samya Kullab in Beirut contributed.