The death toll in anti-government protests that have swept across Iraq over the past week has soared to at least 88, according to security and medical sources.
- The latest deaths mark a sharp escalation in the use of force against unarmed demonstrators
- Young protesters are calling for an end to endemic corruption that plagues Iraq, and the “fall of the regime”
- The nation’s top Shiite cleric blamed politicians for failing to enact promised reforms
Clashes between police and protesters in Baghdad left at least 17 people dead on Friday and 11 on Saturday, in a new flare-up of anti-government unrest as security forces deployed in their hundreds to keep demonstrations away from central squares in the Iraqi capital.
Saturday’s clashes shattered a day of relative calm after authorities lifted a curfew and traffic moved normally in the centre of the city.
The deaths marked a sharp escalation in the use of force against unarmed protesters and prompted calls from the UN to end the violence.
“Five days of reported deaths and injuries; this must stop,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN’s top official in Iraq, said in a tweet.
She said she was “deeply saddened by the senseless loss of life” and those responsible should be held to account.
Police and medical sources said 18 people had also been killed in Nassiriya, four in Amara and four in Baquba as unrest spread out of the capital.
Rallies began on Tuesday as mostly young demonstrators took to the streets demanding jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to the endemic corruption that plagues the oil-rich country.
Security forces opened fire directly at hundreds of anti-government demonstrators in central Baghdad on Friday night, killing at least 17 protesters and injuring dozens. (AP: Khalid Mohammed)
On Friday the protesters, many of whom camped out on the streets on Thursday night, gathered before noon near the capital’s Tahrir Square in defiance of a curfew set by authorities.
As Friday prayers concluded at sunset, the number of protesters grew to more than 1,000 and forces opened fire in side streets to prevent more people from reaching the square, which was sealed off.
Security forces hit two people directly in the head and killed them, according to witnesses and hospital officials.
The military’s media arm also said two policemen and two civilians were killed by sniper fire.
“There’s no electricity, no jobs, people are dying of starvation, and people are sick. It is a curse,” said one young protester, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Rasoul Saray, a 34-year-old unemployed Baghdad resident who wore a green mask, vowed to continue protesting despite the crackdown.
“I am taking part in the demonstrations because of unemployment and corruption,” Mr Saray said.
As a group of Iraqi journalists were interviewing another protester in the square, a policeman opened fire and wounded the youth in the leg.
The protests have presented the most serious challenge for Iraq since the defeat of the Islamic State group two years ago. (AP: Khalid Mohammed)
Powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a mass popular following and controls a large chunk of Parliament, demanded on Friday that the Government resign and snap elections be held. At least one other major parliamentary grouping allied itself with Sadr against the Government.
Parliament was set to meet on Saturday to discuss protesters’ demands. Sadr’s bloc has said it will boycott the session and support further protest. But neither the Government nor demonstrators appear to be willing to back down from unrest that has presented the most serious challenge for Iraq since the defeat of the Islamic State group two years ago.
More than 60 people have been killed during four days of nationwide anti-government protests in Iraq, according to security and medical sources. (AP: Khalid Mohammed)
On Friday, in his first comments since the protests began, Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged both sides to end the violence and blamed politicians for failing to enact promised reforms related to the economy and corruption.
“The Government and the political sides have not fulfilled the demands of the people to fight corruption,” Ayatollah al-Sistani said in a sermon delivered by his representative in the Shiite holy city of Karbala
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said the protesters’ “legitimate demands” had been heard, adding the security measures used against the demonstrations were like “bitter medicine” that needed to be swallowed.
He said there was “no magic solution” to Iraq’s problems but pledged to work on laws granting poor families a basic income and fighting corruption.
But any power vacuum in Iraq, should the Government be toppled, could prove challenging for the region, given Baghdad’s status as an ally of both the United States and Iran, who are locked in a political stand-off.
Islamic State militants could also take advantage of any chaos and thousands of US troops are stationed in the country in positions not far from those of Iran-allied Shiite militia.
Many protesters camped out on the Baghdad streets, lighting fires on closed-off streets. (AP: Khalid Mohammed)