WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Iraq's government "should listen to the legitimate demands" of the Iraqi people as anti-government protests continued in Baghdad and a major port city.
“The United States welcomes any serious efforts made by the government of Iraq to address the ongoing problems in Iraqi society,” Pompeo said in a statement on November 1, just ahead of the largest demonstrations seen in the Iraqi capital since protests began a month ago.
He added that leaders in Baghdad “should listen to the legitimate demands made by the Iraqi people who have taken to the streets to have their voices heard.”
More than 250 people have been killed amid a series of protests in which participants have directed their anger over corruption and unemployment at the country's political elite and criticized Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. Five died on November 1 of wounds sustained earlier, according to reports.
Also on November 1, tens of thousands of Iraqis gathered in central Baghdad. At least 350 were injured when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to forcibly disperse crowds.
Protesters in the major shipping center Umm Qasr continued to block access to the city's port on November 2 after anti-riot forces fired tear gas and live rounds in an attempt to disperse them the night before.
Iraqi security forces reportedly used tear gas and live bullets again in clashes with protesters on the same day at the port in the oil-rich region of Basra, injuring 120 people
Pompeo called on “all sides to reject violence” and said the Iraqi people “deserve genuine accountability and justice,” adding that the government’s previous investigation into the violence in early October “lacked sufficient credibility.”
Pompeo said recent moves by Iraqi President Barham Salih to impose “severe restrictions” on freedom of the press and expression “must be relaxed.”
“Press freedom is inherent to democratic reform. The U.S. government continues to support Iraqi institutions, the Iraqi people, and Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty,” Pompeo said.
Amnesty International has said that security forces in Baghdad have fired military-grade tear gas grenades directly into crowds of protesters, causing horrific wounds.
During one wave of demonstrations, snipers shot protesters in the head and chest, with nearly 150 killed in less than a week, Amnesty said. More than 12,000 have reportedly been wounded.
The Iraqi military in October admitted it had used "excessive force" during the early protests, and said it had "begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts."
Salih earlier condemned violence against protesters and in an October 7 televised speech announced a series of measures to combat corruption and provide the better job opportunities and services demanded by protesters.
The demonstrators have been protesting high unemployment, poor public services, and widespread corruption in the country.
The protests have taken place mainly in Baghdad and in the southern Shi’ite-majority regions.
Videos circulated online showed protesters this week with banners picturing Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the chief of the elite Quds Force, General Qassim Soleimani, with their faces crossed out.
A video from November 1 showed protesters marching over an Iranian flag painted on the pavement with a swastika added to it.
Shi'ite Iran has wielded influence in Iraq since dictator Saddam Hussein's ouster following a 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and it backs powerful Shi'ite militias in the country.
Meanwhile, the United States still provides Iraq with military, political, and financial aid, and Baghdad has attempted to balance its ties to both the United States and neighboring Iran.