Iraqi protestors vow to press on as 'nothing to lose'

Baghdad (AFP) –


"We're not infiltrators", Sayyed said over and over again as he marched Friday to Baghdad's iconic Tahrir Square after Iraqi officials accused "aggressors" of being behind four days of anti-government protests.

Despite pleas from embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi for a "return to a normal life" and the endorsement of the protests by Iraq's top Shiite religious authority, Sayyed said he would continue to demonstrate "until the government falls".

He spoke to AFP in a divided city where protests first erupted on Tuesday before spreading to the Shiite-dominated south.

Some neighbourhoods of Baghdad, a city of nine million inhabitants, remain eerily quiet and empty.

But others, particularly around the emblematic Tahrir Square in the centre, resemble war zones.

Riot police have clashed with masked protesters, unleashing water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire.

Security forces have set up cement barriers and sealed off streets with armoured vehicles, tightening a curfew first announced on Thursday morning.

Bullets whizz through the streets aimed at crowds of protesters whose numbers constantly swell as more arrive in trucks.

The protestors take cover in alleyways their bodies wrapped in banners and flags bearing the name of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and a revered figure in Shiite Islam.

A truck transporting a coffin is seen driving back and forth, but AFP could not immediately confirm if there was a body inside.

- 'Land of oil and blessings' -

"We came here to demand our rights. We've got nothing to lose,? said Sayyed, 32 and unemployed.

"This is the land of oil and other blessings. Drill three meters down right here and you?ll strike oil -- but here we are starving," he added.

The protests are unusual because of their apparent spontaneity and independence in a country where rallies are typically called by politicians or religious figures.

Demonstrators are protesting against corruption, unemployment and poor public services.

"What is a man supposed to do if he has kids and has to pay rent? I don't know what my future is. I have no job, no house and I don't know how I'm supposed to feed my children," said Sayyed.

"We want fundamental change. Otherwise, I won't leave the street -- even if I die."

Clashes with security forces have left 44 people dead, including six police officers, according to government sources.

Officials have blamed the violence on "infiltrators" and "non-peaceful aggressors."

In his first public address since the protests began, the embattled premier made a televised speech which aired at 2:00 am Friday as heavy gunfire rang out across Baghdad.

But his comments failed to appease the protesters.

- 'No one cares' -

"Even the drunkards were asleep," at that time of day, scoffed one protester when asked what he thought of Abdel Mahdi's speech.

Another demonstrator, a checkered scarf wrapped around his face, said he has been protesting for the past three days.

"No one cares. Proof is they are shooting at us in the squares," he said, declining to give his name.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is revered among Iraq's Shiite majority, on Friday endorsed the protests, and warned they could intensify unless the government takes "clear and immediate steps.... before it's too late".

His words prompted celebratory gunfire from protesters, but Sayyed is not pleased.

"With all due respect, the Shiite authority has done nothing for us," he said.

Sayyed said he took up arms in 2014 at the call of Sistani to beef up Iraqi forces and fight the Islamic State group "but today (he) abandoned us).

Since Tuesday the protests have grown increasingly chaotic and tensions have been exacerbated by an internet blackout as authorities seek to prevent protesters from communication with each other.

Ambulances and paramedics are scarce.

Protesters are resorting to tuk-tuks to transport the wounded to hospitals.

Tuk-tuk driver Ali Abdulridha, 20, said he ferries demonstrators to protest sites and as the day unfolds carries those injured to hospitals from 6:00 am until 8:00 pm