Protests in Iraq turn deadly and spread nationwide
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Anti-government protesters defied a curfew Thursday as Iraqi security forces used live ammunition and tear gas on a third day of unrest that left 33 dead, most of them protesters.
Authorities cut Internet access in much of Iraq since late Wednesday in a desperate move to curb the rallies.
A round-the-clock curfew placed on Baghdad and other major cities was extended to three other southern provinces by late Thursday
The spontaneous rallies have been spurred mostly by youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country. Most of the demonstrators were peaceful; many had their faces covered with masks or Iraqi flags.
The streets of Baghdad were littered with tear gas canisters and empty bullet casings. Smoke from burned tyres rose above the streets as protesters tried to prevent security forces from advancing. The forces spread barbed wires and armored vehicles to block their path.
The protests spread to other cities in predominantly Shiite Muslim southern Iraq, where policemen said they increasingly encountered demonstrators carrying weapons.
But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Dr. Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said the government was to blame for the current situation in the country.
“This is not the first time Iraqi people protest. Unfortunately, the government handling of the situation is worse, they used violence against the protesters and I can see the number of civilians exposed to attacks are increasing,” said Al Bayati. “In such cases, we must blame the government. We face protests every month. But we need practical steps regarding combating corruption, providing employment.”
Serious challenge to Iraqi PM
The unrest is the most serious challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old government, which also has been caught in the middle of increasing US-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of US troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Middle East expert Jennifer Cafarella, with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said the immediate and widespread use of force against protesters in multiple provinces demonstrates “that the security forces are overwhelmed by the volume and rate of spread” of the rallies.
There were indications that regional tensions are at play. Some Baghdad demonstrators blamed Iranian-backed groups within the security forces for the violence. Media affiliated with the Iranian-backed groups have pointed fingers at the US and Saudi Arabia for the unrest.
Cafarella said that indicates the “potential for escalation” between protesters and these forces.
One protester in Baghdad held up an empty casing to journalists, screaming: “Look! These are Iranian bullets!”
Iran urges citizens to postpone pilgrimages
The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.
“I came here to seize back my rights,” said Ahmed Abdul-Sattar, a protester in his early 20s. “I can’t get a government job or find any other job. It is a corrupt government and we came here to take our rights.”
Iraq’s state news agency said Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi invited representatives of the protesters to parliament to discuss their demands. Iraqi state TV broadcast numbers for the office of the prime minister in an outreach to the seemingly leaderless protests.
Meanwhile Iran urged its citizens to postpone pilgrimages to Shiite holy sites in Iraq amid the turmoil. Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope the Iraqi government, political parties and groups would help calm the disturbances that it said were being exploited by foreign elements.
The Baghdad curfew was announced early Thursday following a meeting on the protests by Iraq’s top leaders.
Authorities said the curfew was meant to “protect general peace” and protesters from “infiltrators” who committed attacks against security forces and public property. It excludes travelers to and from the Baghdad airport, and Iraqi Airways said flights were operating as scheduled.
Baghdad’s main streets were largely deserted Thursday morning, except for Iraqi army vehicles. Some side roads were blocked with barbed wire.
When the demonstrators tried to reach a nearby bridge leading to the Green Zone, Iraqi security forces started shooting automatic rifles above the crowd.
Protesters take to the streets after dark
After dark, dozens of protesters blocked a section of the highway leading to the airport from Baghdad, burning tiyes and sitting on the ground, a police official said. One witness reported intense gunfire, apparently as security forces tried to open the road.
The lanes leading away from the airport remained open, the official said.
Other protesters stormed municipal offices in Baghdad’s northern suburbs of Taji and Sabaa al-Bour and set them ablaze, according to a police official and a health worker, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
NetBlocks, which monitors cybersecurity and internet governance, reported that web access was cut off across much of Iraq. Social and messaging apps, used to organise the protests, also were blocked. Iraqis abroad campaigned on social media to spread videos and news from inside the country, using the hashtag #Save_the_Iraqi-People. No political party has joined the campaign so far.
Politicians denounced the violence and at least one, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called for an investigation.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)