Renewed live fire in Iraq capital as blackout, sit-ins persist

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraqi security forces fired live ammunition at protesters in the capital on Wednesday as tensions rose elsewhere in the country between persistent anti-government demonstrators and paralysed politicians.

Mass rallies have continued in the capital and across Iraq's Shiite-majority south, despite a renewed internet blackout and violence that has left nearly 280 dead.

They broke out on October 1 in anger over corruption and unemployment but have morphed into demands that the entire ruling system be upended.

In Baghdad, protesters had been concentrated in the iconic Tahrir Square but have increasingly spilled over onto nearby bridges leading to the western bank of the Tigris.

For days, they have faced off against security forces on the Al-Jumhuriyah bridge, which links them to the Green Zone where government offices and embassies are based.

They then spread to Al-Sinek, which ends near the Iranian embassy, and Al-Ahrar, near other government buildings.

On Wednesday, a group of protesters tried to cross a fourth bridge, Al-Shuhada, but were met with live rounds from security forces, an AFP correspondent said.

Several protesters were clearly wounded in the fire.

"The riot police hit us with batons on our heads and we threw rocks at them," said Mahmoud, a 20-year-old protester being treated by medics after trying to cross Al-Shuhada bridge.

"But then they started firing live rounds on people."

Security forces resumed their use of live rounds in the capital on Monday, after nearly two weeks of using volleys of tear gas -- but no firearms -- to push back protesters.

- Activists, medics targeted -

Even the tear gas usage has been deadly, however, with medics and Amnesty International saying security forces appeared to be firing the canisters directly at protesters.

Those confrontations have been escalating at the bridges, where police have been on high alert to prevent demonstrators from reaching the Green Zone.

Around 120 people have died since protests resumed on October 24, according to an AFP count, as officials have stopped giving precise tolls in recent days.

The initial six-day wave of rallies in early October left 157 dead, most of them protesters shot dead in Baghdad by "unidentified snipers," a government probe found.

Although the resumption has been less deadly, security and medical sources have been reporting new dangerous trends.

Protesters were being abducted by unidentified assailants as they returned from rallies in an attempt to intimidate them, security sources said.

A medical source also told AFP three doctors were abducted on Tuesday from Tahrir.

A female paramedic, Saba Mahdawi, has been missing since November 2 after being kidnapped near her home.

The abductions, coupled with the renewed internet outage, has sparked worries of looming violence.

"Cutting the internet is a sign that there will be bloodshed," a government official told AFP.

Authorities imposed an internet blackout for two weeks last month, later loosening it.

- Iran's ire -

In the country's south, sit-ins kept schools and official buildings shut in Nasiriyah, Kut, Hillah, Diwaniyah and the holy city of Najaf, AFP correspondents said.

On Tuesday night, protesters set fire to the homes of parliamentarians and local officials in Al-Shatra, a town north of Nasiriyah, according to security sources.

Protesters have in recent weeks have turned their ire towards government headquarters and recently expanded it to state infrastructure.

A sit-in has shut the road to the Umm Qasr port, which brings in most of the country's food and medical imports through Basra, for days despite security forces' attempts to reopen it.

On Wednesday morning, protesters also shut down the access route to the Dhi Qar oil company, a source there said, preventing employees from reaching the office but not affecting oil production.

In Diwaniyah, demonstrators shut down the Shanafiyah refinery, according to an AFP correspondent.

Proposed reforms have failed to appease the demonstrators and talks among top political leaders have yet to produce a solution to the crisis.

President Barham Saleh has proposed early elections once a new voting law and commission were agreed, which would pave the way for a new prime minister.

But that suggestion appears to have angered Iranian officials trying to close rank around the current government.

Iran holds sway across Iraq's political spectrum, and Saleh's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party has long been seen as close to Tehran.

"Iran isn't happy with the role that Barham Saleh has played in the current crisis. He abandoned those who brought him to the presidency at the first fork in the road," a source close to top decision-makers told AFP.