Security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at anti-government protesters in a central Baghdad square Friday, killing three people, in bloody confrontations that continued despite an influential Shiite leader’s call for calm.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani emphasized support for the demonstrators in his weekly religious sermon, saying none of their demands have been met so far and that electoral reform should be a priority. He called for a new election law that would restore public confidence in the system and give voters the opportunity to bring “new faces” to power.
At least 320 people have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when protesters took to the streets in the tens of thousands outraged by what they said was widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services despite the country’s oil wealth.
Renewed clashes broke out in Khilani square Friday afternoon. Soldiers and riot police began firing live rounds and tear gas at hundreds of protesters who removed concrete barriers and streamed into the square. Iraqi security and medical officials said three protesters were killed and at least 25 others wounded.
Friday’s deaths brought to four the number of protesters killed in the past 24 hours in the square, which has been at the center of confrontations for days.
Demonstrations have mostly been taking place in Baghdad’s Tahrir and Khilani squares and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces, following tough measures by Iraqi security forces to clamp down on protests.
The powerful cleric, who’s opinion holds major sway over Iraqis, said a fair electoral law should give voters the ability to replace current political leaders with “new faces.”
“Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless,” he said in his weekly sermon Friday.
“If those in power think they can evade dealing with real reform by procrastination, they are mistaken,” al-Sistani said. “What comes after the protests is not the same as before, so be careful,” he warned.
He said corruption among the ruling elite has reached “unbearable limits” while large segments of the population are finding it increasingly impossible to have their basic needs met.
“People did not go out to demonstrations calling for reform in this unprecedented way, and do not continue to do so despite the heavy price and grave sacrifices it requires, except because they found no other way to revolt against the corruption which is getting worse day after day, and the rampant deterioration on all fronts,” he said.
On Monday, al-Sistani said he backed a roadmap by the U.N. mission in Iraq aimed at meeting the demands of the protesters, but expressed concern that political parties were not serious about carrying out the proposed reforms.
Turkey’s interior minister said Wednesday that his country’s forces have captured an "important" figure within the Islamic State group, in Syria.
Suleyman Soylu said the suspect is still being interrogated but did not identify the person or provide further details.
“We recently captured an important man within the (IS) in Syria. He has given information on the things he did. His interrogation is continuing,” Soylu said.
Turkey has said it captured and detained several members of the family of the slain Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including one of his wives, his sister and a daughter.
Al-Baghdadi blew himself up during an Oct. 26 raid by U.S. special forces on his heavily fortified safe house in the Syrian province of Idlib.
Turkey has been publicizing its efforts to catch IS members, following criticism that its recent military offensive to drive Syrian Kurdish fighters from northeast Syria would lead to an IS resurgence.
Since the incursion, Turkey is also engaged in a push to deport foreign IS members who are held in Turkish prisons or in Syria. Three foreign IS suspects — from the United States, Denmark and Germany — were deported on Monday, while an official said seven Germans would be expelled on Thursday. Turkey also plans to soon deport two Irish and 11 French nationals.
On Wednesday, a suspected IS member was seen in a heavily militarized no man’s land between Turkey and Greece for a third straight day. Greek officials have said Turkey tried to expel the man, a U.S. national, to Greece but Athens refused him entry.
Turkish media have identified him as 39-year-old Mohammad Darwis B. and said he was an American citizen of Jordanian background.
An Associated Press journalist at the Greek side of the border, said the man stood some 50 meters (yards) away from the Turkish passport control on the Turkish side of the no man’s land, with one or two Turkish border soldiers and four other men.
A car with Turkish number plates approached, along with four men on foot, with the man in car addressing the alleged IS suspect as “Mohammad.” The IS suspect turned around and asked in an American accent if he would be “able to speak today.” The Turkish man replied “maybe.”
Asked to comment on the reports about the man, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday: "Whether they are stuck there at the border it doesn't concern us. We will continue to send them. Whether they take them or not, it is not our concern."
Israeli airstrikes pounded Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza on Wednesday and militants resumed rocket fire toward Israel after a brief overnight lull, as the death toll rose to 23 Palestinians, including a 7-year-old boy and two other minors, in the heaviest round of fighting in months.
The military said more than 250 rockets were fired at Israeli communities since the violence erupted following an Israeli airstrike that killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander. With the strike, Israel stepped up its battle against Iran and its proxies across the region.
The latest fighting brought life in much of Israel to a standstill. Schools were closed in Israeli communities near the Gaza border and restrictions on public gatherings continued as rockets rained down. Air raid sirens continued to wail throughout the day.
In Gaza, schools and public institutions also were closed for a second day and there were few cars were on the streets, with people mostly staying indoors.
The fighting was triggered early Tuesday by Israel’s targeted killing of Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife as they were sleeping. Rocket fire from Gaza reached as far north as Tel Aviv, with two people wounded by shrapnel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a special Cabinet meeting that Israel has no interest in sparking a wider confrontation but warned the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad that Israel will keep pounding them until the rockets stop.
“They know we will continue to strike them without mercy,” Netanyahu said. “They have one choice: either stop these attacks or absorb more and more blows.”
Gaza's Hamas rulers have yet to enter the fray — a possible sign the current violence could be brief. Although larger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, Hamas is also more pragmatic. With Gaza's economy in tatters, it appears to have little desire for more fighting with Israel.
But Hamas could be drawn in if the clashes drag on for an extended period or the Palestinian death toll rises significantly.
Palestinian officials reported 23 dead from Israeli airstrikes, including at least 13 militants. Five civilians, including boys ages 17, 16 and 7, were among the dead, while the identities of the other people killed were not immediately known.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the army was trying to limit its activities to Islamic Jihad military targets in hopes of keeping Hamas on the sidelines and preventing a serious escalation.
“However, it’s very clear that if there will be Israeli casualties, the situation would change drastically and we would be forced to respond in a different manner,” he said.
U.N. Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov said negotiators are “working to urgently de-escalate” the fighting.
In a statement released in Cairo, where he was to meet President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as part of efforts to broker a cease-fire, Mladenov said he was “very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation” of violence.
Egypt frequently mediates between Israel and Gaza militants. Islamic Jihad has rejected the efforts, with spokesman Musab al-Berim saying the group’s priority is to “respond to the crime and confront the Israeli aggression.”
The French Foreign Ministry urged restraint by both side, saying it deplores the escalation of tensions and condemns the rocket fire toward Israel.
Israel’s new defense minister, Naftali Bennett, said Israel wouldn’t hesitate to carry out additional targeted killings against those who threaten it. “Israeli security forces will hunt down every terrorist, until our children are secure and safe,” he said.
Netanyahu appointed him to fortify his hard-line political base as he clings to office after two inconclusive elections. Bennett has long advocated tougher action against Palestinian militants but wasn’t part of the plans to strike Abu el-Atta.
No Israeli deaths have been caused by the rockets attacks, mostly thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which the military said has had a 90% success rate when deployed.
A few homes suffered direct hits, though, and there was a near miss on a major highway, where a rocket crashed just after a vehicle had passed.
In Gaza, the Islamic Jihad said four militants were killed, including 38-year-old Khaled Faraj, a brigade commander. Four others were killed in an airstrike, including a father and two sons, and two others were targeted later. Their identities were unclear.
Along with Tuesday’s airstrike in Gaza, another one attributed to Israel targeted a senior Islamic Jihad commander based in Syria. The strikes appeared to be a new surge in the open warfare between Israel and Iranian proxies in the region.
Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In Gaza, it supplies Islamic Jihad with cash, weapons and expertise.
Netanyahu also has claimed Iran is using Iraq and far-off Yemen, where Tehran supports Shiite Houthi rebels at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing the government, to plan attacks against Israel. Hamas also receives some support from Iran.
Israel frequently strikes Iranian interests in Syria but its attack in Damascus appeared to be a rare assassination attempt there of a Palestinian militant.
Despite the disruption to daily life, there appeared to be widespread support in Israel for the targeting of Abu el-Atta.
Conricus, the military spokesman, said Abu el-Atta was in the final stages of planning a “combined attack” that was to include rockets, anti-tank missiles and a ground infiltration into Israel.
Netanyahu said the military operation was approved by the Cabinet 10 days in advance.
Still, some opposition figures suggested the timing could not be divorced from the political reality in Israel, where Netanyahu leads a caretaker government while his chief challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, is trying to build a coalition government of his own.
Despite their rivalry, both men support a unity government, but each demands to be its leader.
Gantz said he’d been briefed on the airstrike in advance, calling it "the right decision." Netanyahu updated his rival on developments later, according to his office.
A successful military operation could bolster Netanyahu as he seeks to hold onto power — especially if he is indicted on corruption charges.
Israel's attorney general is to decide in the coming weeks whether to indict Netanyahu. An indictment would increase pressure on him to step aside. Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as one best capable of steering the country through its many security challenges.
Israel's army deployed artillery near the Gaza Strip border on Wednesday morning, in the second day of escalating tension between the country and Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.
Video footage on Israeli media showed cannons and armored vehicles deployed near the fence between Israel and Gaza.
The Hebrew-language Ynet news site reported that the 13th battalion of the Golani infantry brigade was deployed across the fence, adding that military officials said the move was a defensive means and not in order to prepare for a ground invasion to the Palestinian enclave.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israeli military's spokesman Hedi Zilberman told reporters that the army has boosted its anti-rocket Iron Dome batteries and deployed more troops near the fence.
Israel's newly-appointed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett issued a warning to militants in Gaza.
Bennett, leader of the far-right party of the New Right, said that Israel might carry out more strikes to kill militant commanders in Gaza.
"We did it yesterday, and will not hesitate to act in the future," he said, referring to a predawn Israeli strike on Tuesday on the home of Baha Abu al-Atta, a senior commander with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which killed al-Atta and his wife.
The killing triggered a spate of violence, including dozens of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and at least 250 rockets fired at central and southern Israel.
At least 15 Palestinians have been killed and 50 more were wounded in Gaza since Tuesday, according to Gaza's health ministry figures.
Meanwhile, no fatalities were reported in Israel and two people were injured by shrapnel, according to the country's MDA medical emergency service.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the fighting with Gaza's Islamic Jihad group "could take time" in the second day of escalating tension in the region.
"We are continuing to hit Islamic Jihad after eliminating its senior commander," Netanyahu said at the start of a special cabinet meeting, referring to Tuesday's predawn strikes on the home of Baha Abu al-Atta, a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander, which killed al-Atta and his wife.
Netanyahu said that al-Atta "was responsible for most of the terror attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip in the last year and he was planning to carry out more attacks in the very next days."
He said that Israel is not interested in further escalation but warned the Islamic Jihad that the Israeli army "will continue to strike them with no mercy" if rocket fire towards Israel continues.
Netanyahu addressed the citizens of Israel and said the escalation "could take time" and asked them to stay vigilant.
The killing of al-Atta triggered a spate of violence, including at least 250 rockets fired at central and southern Israel and dozens of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
At least 16 Palestinians have been killed and 50 more were wounded in Gaza since Tuesday, according to Gaza's health ministry figures.
Meanwhile, no fatalities were reported in Israel and two people were injured by shrapnel, according to the country's MDA medical emergency service.