Iraq protesters defy new violence as president addresses Davos

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Iraqi protesters during ongoing demonstrations on Mohammad al-Qasim highway in east Baghdad on Wednesday

Anti-government rallies resurged in Iraq on Wednesday despite renewed violence across the capital and south this week, as protesters ramp up their sit-ins to pressure authorities to implement long-awaited reforms.

The youth-dominated movement is desperately trying to maintain momentum in the face of spiralling US-Iran tensions and a rival anti-American rally planned for Friday.

Iraq's President, Barham Saleh, warned against pushing the country to choose sides in escalating tensions between neighbouring Iran and the US, both allies of Baghdad.

He also met US President Donald Trump for the first time since the US killing of an Iranian commander in Baghdad led the Iraqi parliament to call for expulsion of US troops.

The two leaders, meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, agreed on the need for a continued US military role in Iraq and discussed the protests.

Anti-government protesters have escalated their demonstrations but face being sidelined by regional tensions as well as a new wave of violence.

At least 10 people have been killed this week, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission -- four of them in Baghdad and the rest in the provinces of Basra, Diyala and Karbala.

Late Tuesday, 49-year old activist Janat Madhi was gunned down by unidentified attackers as she returned home from protests in the southern city of Basra, police said.

Activists have for months complained of an intensifying campaign of kidnappings and killings that they say aims to scare them into halting protests.

They are also worried about tensions with a competing rally this Friday organised by populist cleric Moqtada Sadr to urge the 5,200 US troops deployed in Iraq to leave.

- Continued US presence -

Tensions between Washington and Tehran boiled over on Iraqi soil this month, with the US killing top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad and Iran striking back at an Iraqi base hosting American soldiers.

Furious at the US hit, Iraq's parliament voted on January 5 to oust all foreign troops, including US soldiers deployed alongside local forces.

But on Wednesday, Saleh told world leaders in Davos that the vote should not be understood as "a sign of ingratitude or hostility," but a response to a violation of his country's sovereignty.

"It is not in our interest to choose to ally with one side at the expense of others, as long as both respect our sovereignty and independence."

Trump told Saleh that he "does not want to stay in Iraq", a source from Saleh's office told AFP, and would draw down forces in an "unprecedented way".

But he insisted that any withdrawal must not be insulting or disrespectful to Washington.

According to the White House, "The two leaders agreed on the importance of continuing the United States-Iraq economic and security partnership, including the fight against ISIS".

- Oil production hit -

To head off Sadr's Friday protest while ramping up pressure on authorities, demonstrators this week launched sit-ins in new areas and shut roads with burning tyres.

Their main demands include early elections under a new voting law, an independent premier and accountability for corruption and killings of protesters.

More than 460 protesters have been killed since the rallies first erupted in October, fuelled by anger over graft and a joblessness then ballooning into demands for deep political reforms.

On Monday, three protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in Baghdad and another demonstrator died on Tuesday after a tear gas canister punctured his skull.

Rights groups accuse security forces of using military-grade gas canisters -- up to 10 times heavier than those designed for use against civilians -- and firing them directly at crowds rather than into the air.

Demonstrators are outraged that only a handful of security personnel have been charged over the violence and no perpetrators of hit-and-run attacks have been pursued, while protesters have been swiftly arrested for shutting down streets.

Blocking roads has been a key tactic this week, with protesters cutting streets and national highways around the capital and the Shiite-majority south.

"We'll keep shutting roads and getting protesters into the street to keep these important demonstrations going," said Aqil al-Zamili, a 50-year-old activist.

The road closures have left hundreds of tankers carrying oil products north towards Baghdad stranded outside the capital.

They also forced a shutdown at the main oil field northwest of Nasiriyah, the capital of Dhi Qar province, a source at the state-owned provincial oil company told AFP.

"Production... was halted for the third consecutive day because transport routes leading to the field are cut," the Dhi Qar Oil Company source said, adding that the field produces up to 100,000 barrels per day.

Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC's second-biggest crude producer, logging around 3.4 million bpd of exports.

But public services are failing, unemployment is high and one in five people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.