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Iraqis seal bridges, roads as protests pick up pace

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Baghdad (AFP)

Striking Iraqis sealed off key bridges and avenues in Baghdad and across the south Sunday, boosting a weeks-long street movement that is demanding a government overhaul.

Sit-ins have become the go-to tactic for rallies that erupted in early October in fury over corruption, a lack of jobs and an out-of-touch political class.

They have resisted efforts by security forces to snuff the gatherings out and on Sunday, thousands came out across the country after activists called for a general strike.

In the southern hotspots of Kut, Najaf and Diwaniyah schools and government offices were shut as swelling crowds hit the streets.

Protesters burned tyres to block roads in the oil-rich port city of Basra and outside Nasiriyah, prompting security forces to send reinforcements.

In Hillah, south of Baghdad, students and other activists massed in front of the provincial headquarters.

"We'll keep up our protest and general strike with all Iraqis until we force the government to resign," said Hassaan al-Tufan, a lawyer and activist.

In Baghdad, protesters expanded their sit-in from the main protest camp of Tahrir (Liberation) Square further north to the Al-Ahrar (Free Men) bridge.

Along with Al-Jumhuriyah and Al-Sinek, that brings to three the number of bridges whose eastern approaches are occupied by protesters.

- Student awakening -

They are highly strategic, linking the eastern bank of the Tigris to the west, where parliament, the premier's office and other key buildings are located.

Along each bridge, security forces stationed behind thick concrete blast walls lob tear gas grenades and shoot live rounds -- even machine gun fire -- to keep protesters back.

Al-Jumhuriyah leads to the Green Zone, the high-security enclave housing the US embassy.

Al-Sinek, which protesters retook on Saturday, leads to the embassy of neighbouring Iran, which protesters have criticised for propping up the government they want to bring down.

Iraq's neighbour has faced its own deadly agitation since a hike in petrol prices was announced on Friday in a country already crippled by US sanctions.

Tehran holds immense sway over many of Iraq's political and military actors, but large numbers of protesters have described its influence in recent weeks as an overreach.

On Sunday, hundreds of students skipped class to gather in Tahrir, the beating heart of the protest movement.

"No politics, no parties, this is a student awakening!" read one banner carried by young Iraqis with rucksacks.

"We students are here to help the other protesters, and we won't retreat a single step," said a teenager wearing thick black-framed glasses.

- NATO: deaths a 'tragedy' -

Their push north onto Al-Ahrar bridge was met with heavy gunfire and tear gas, witnesses there told AFP.

A medical source said one protester died of a trauma wound from a tear gas canister, and more than 40 other people were wounded.

Another person was wounded when a rocket hit a commercial street on the eastern bank of the river late Sunday, the security services said in a statement.

More than 330 people have died and around 15,000 people have been wounded since the protests first broke out.

Iraqi security forces have come under heavy criticism for their use of live rounds -- including machine gun fire -- and firing of heavy-duty tear gas cannisters in response to protests.

They have been accused of firing tear gas at point-blank range, leading to "gruesome" deaths and injuries when canisters pierce protesters' skulls or lungs.

On Sunday, the outgoing chief of NATO's Iraq mission told AFP the violence was "an absolute tragedy."

"While the events of the last six weeks are an absolute tragedy, NATO continues to urge restraint to the government of Iraq," said Major General Dany Fortin.

The government has proposed a laundry list of reforms in recent weeks but demonstrators have brushed them off as too little, too late in a country ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

"These steps, these reforms are just an opiate for the masses. Nothing more, nothing less," another protester said on Sunday, pointing across the Tigris to the Green Zone.

"There are so many capable young people in Iraq who are deprived -- and unfortunately those are the guys that rule us", he lamented.

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