Security Forces, Protesters Clash in Iraq Amid Virus Spike, Rocket Attack

Protesters have reportedly tried to break into Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone—home to government facilities and foreign diplomatic installations—hours after militants launched a rocket toward the U.S. Embassy there.

Videos and images from the Green Zone showed security services using tear gas and water cannons to try and disperse protesters at a gate guarding the entrance to the area, with reports of some demonstrators injured.

Some reports suggested the protesters were trying to reach the embassy of Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the region and a target for Iranian-directed militias in Iraq.

The clashes come amid a spike in the number of coronavirus cases in Iraq. The pandemic represents a huge challenge for the government of new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, given Iraq's underfunded health infrastructure, struggling economy and ongoing popular discontent.

Iraqi security forces have faced international condemnation for their violent suppression of unrest over the past year. Baghdad and other cities have been rocked by anti-government protests driven by poor living conditions, corruption and foreign influence—whether from the U.S., Iran or elsewhere.

More than 700 protesters were killed between October 2019 and January 2020, according to the Iraqi War Crimes Documentation Center. More than 27,000 people were reported wounded over the same period.

The Green Zone is often a center of protests in Baghdad given its political significance. In January, protesters, including members of Iranian-backed militia organizations, stormed the Green Zone and broke into the U.S. Embassy there, ransacking and vandalizing the facility.

In response, the U.S. assassinated Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike outside Baghdad airport on January 3.

The action dragged the U.S. and Iran to the brink of open conflict. Iran retaliated with ballistic missile strikes against two Iraqi military bases hosting American troops, wounding more than 100 service members. Iranian anti-aircraft units then accidentally shot down a passenger aircraft outside Tehran, mistaking it for an American warplane.

The Iraqi government has so far been unable or unwilling to fully reign in the activities of Iranian-funded militias in the country. These powerful groups emerged as vital elements in the country's fight against Islamic State militants in the north of the country and wield significant influence in the country's parliament.

Militia groups still launch semi-regular rocket attacks against American positions inside the Green Zone and elsewhere. Such militias have regularly been targeted by U.S. airstrikes, including in December immediately after the storming of the American embassy.

The Iraqi military confirmed Sunday that militants launched a rocket towards the U.S. Embassy on Saturday night, but that the weapon fell short of its target and wounded a child. A second attack was thwarted pre-launch, with rockets confiscated but no arrests made.

Security forces also discovered a rocket aimed at Camp Taji north of Baghdad before it was launched. The camp is used by American and coalition forces, and in March one British soldier and two American troops were killed in rocket attacks there. Another 21 coalition and Iraqi troops were wounded in two barrages—one on March 11 and one on March 14.

Iraq protests
Iraqi demonstrators gather at the "Turkish restaurant", an abandoned building in the capital Baghdad, overlooking the Tahrir square and the al-Jumhuriya bridge that leads to the high-security Green Zone, during ongoing anti-government protests on November 4, 2019. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images