Iraqi police open fire to disperse new protests in Baghdad

The unrest on Wednesday came a day after at least two Iraqis – one in Baghdad and one in Nasiriyah – were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between police and protesters demanding jobs and better public services.

Security forces in Iraq have used live fire and tear gas to disperse demonstrators in renewed anti-government protests in the capital and other cities amid reports of casualties.

News agencies quoted medical and security sources as saying at least three others were killed  on Wednesday. The death toll could not be independently verified.

The protests mark the first significant popular challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago.

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said the demonstrations had spread to several cities across the country, with demonstrators in Najaf and Nasiriyah reportedly setting fire to government buildings.

“Here in Baghdad, all throughout the evening, we’ve been hearing the sound of gun fire and sirens,” he said, adding that the Iraqi government has been taken by surprise over the size of the protests, which were mostly organised on social media.

“The government appears to be very concerned about these protests spreading. They are restricting live broadcasts from the protest scene, as well as social media, like Facebook and Twitter,” he said.

Iraq Baghdad

Demonstrators disperse as Iraqi security forces use tear gas during a protest in Baghdad Khalid al-Mousily/ Reuters

On Wednesday, the iconic Tahrir Square in Baghdad where hundreds of protesters had gathered the previous day was sealed off by heavily armed soldiers and dozens of riot policemen, with some demonstrators gathering around the edges.

Smaller crowds took to the streets in al-Shaab in north Baghdad and Zafaraniya in the south, a correspondent of the AFP news agency reported, with riot police attempting to disperse them with tear gas and live rounds fired in the air. 

“I came out today in support of my brothers in Tahrir Square,” Abdallah Walid told AFP in Zafaraniya, where protesters were burning tyres on streets lined with riot police vehicles.

“We want jobs and better public services. We’ve been demanding them for years and the government has never responded,” the 27-year-old said.

AFP, citing medical sources, said some 60 people were wounded across Baghdad on Wednesday, including nine from bullet wounds.

At least eight protesters were wounded in the southern district, police sources told the Associated Press news agency. Medical sources told AFP about a dozen people were admitted to hospitals across Baghdad, most of them suffering from tear gas inhalation.

Reuters said protesters tried to break into the municipality building, and hundreds were out on the streets of Hilla and Diwaniya. Thousands gathered in the oil-rich city of Basra in front of the provincial administration building but so far protests there were peaceful. There were peaceful protests in Samawa.

Small protests also took place in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Tikrit, as well as the eastern province of Diyala.

Iraq Baghdad

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment in Najaf Haidar Hamdani/ AFP

Abdul Mahdi on Wednesday chaired an emergency meeting of the national security council, which later issued a statement regretting deaths and injuries on both sides during Tuesday’s protests and affirming the right to protest and freedom of expression. It made no mention of Wednesday’s protests.

“The council affirms the right to protest, freedom of expression, and the protesters’ legitimate demands, but at the same time condemns the acts of vandalism that accompanied the protests,” it said.

Appropriate measures to protect citizens, public, and private property would be taken, it added.

The United Nations also expressed concern over the violence and urged calm, with the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, reaffirming in a statement the right to protest.

The protests began in Baghdad peacefully on Tuesday but turned violent after security forces crackded down. Protesters, who included dozens of unemployed university graduates, responded by calling for toppling the government.

According to the World Bank, youth unemployment in Iraq is more than 20 percent.

In a statement on Tuesday, Abdul Mahdi had promised jobs for unemployed graduates and instructed the oil ministry and other government bodies to start including a 50 percent quota for local workers in subsequent contracts with foreign companies.

Demonstrators shout slogans as they block the road with burning tires during a protest over unemployment, corruption and poor public services, in Baghdad

Demonstrators shout slogans as they block the road with burning tyres during a protest in Baghdad Alaa al-Marjani/ Reuters

Iraq’s President Barham Salih, in a post on Twitter late on Tuesday, reminded security forces that “peaceful protest is a constitutional right”. He added: “Our young Iraqi children are looking for reform and jobs, and our duty is to meet these legitimate demands.”

Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shia leader, called for a “fair investigation” into the events at Tahrir Square.

Parliament, too, has ordered an investigation into the violence and its human rights committee criticised security forces for their “suppression” of the demonstrations.

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