What started Tuesday morning as a wave of promising protests in Tahrir Square saw tensions build throughout the day and violence between protesters and security forces erupted in the early evening.
Videos shared on social media showed tear gas, live fire and chaos reminiscent of October 2019, when the nationwide social uprising began and several protesters were gunned down by security forces.
Since then, nearly 600 protesters have been killed and 35 activists have died in 82 targeted assassinations, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR).
Tuesday’s protests were sparked by the May 9 murder of civilian activist Ehab Jawad al-Wazni near his home in Karbala and his family’s appeals to protesters to demand an end to impunity.
The perpetrators have not yet been identified, but activists and protesters point to Iran-backed Iraqi militias, whose protesters have called for presence.
Ali al-Bayati of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said the security forces must also be held accountable.
“It is only by these means that we can reach the real criminals and end the current impunity,” al-Bayati said, adding that the protests on Tuesday were against “what is happening in the streets against the activists, including the continued assassinations, which are part of the systematic violence ”.
The demonstrators were united under the unofficial slogan “Who killed me?”, And armed with flags and banners bearing the faces of the dead.
“This is a response to a call from the family of Ehab al-Wazni … and to oppose a political system that is not really democratic but claims to be,” said Laith Hussein, 27, of the Baghdad student union.
“We want to get rid of the parties in power, [we want] real freedom, real democracy and to make radical changes to this system, ”Hussein added.
Amid the crowd of disheveled young people, older men and women also took to the streets to show their support.
“My son has no future, my country has no future,” said Abu Marwan, 68. “I’m old, my life is over, but I want a future for this generation.”
The ongoing assassinations and attacks on activists and journalists sparked calls to boycott the October parliamentary elections.
Many protesters said they would not vote, disillusioned by a system that failed to protect them.
“The boycott is a peaceful way of saying that as long as there are armed militias linked to the [political] and killing the opposition, we can’t say it’s a legitimate process, ”said Deena al-Tai, a 34-year-old protester.
“As long as the armed groups have power, we will not participate.”
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report also warned that continued impunity would likely prevent Iraqis from voting in the next election.
“If the authorities are unable to take urgent action to end these extrajudicial killings, the climate of palpable fear they have created will severely limit the ability of Iraqis who have called for change to participate in the upcoming legislative elections.” , wrote HRW’s senior researcher. Belkis Wille.
Despite the ongoing targeted assassinations and the exodus of militants to the safer, Kurdish-controlled north, the protest movement has not abated, said Munqith Dagher, senior non-resident researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington , DC.
“The soul of the movement is still there and it is growing and the attack on the system to stop it and demonize it has failed,” Dagher told Al Jazeera.
Following Tuesday night’s violence, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said in a tweet: “Only responsibility will stop the pattern of deadly attacks targeting civic and political activists. While the authors may think that they have silenced the voices, they are only amplifying them. Responsibility is essential for the stability of Iraq. The Iraqi people have the right to know ”.