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Death toll rises in Iraq as security forces open fire on protests despite curfew

Thousands took the streets on Wednesday and Thursday [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 October, 2019

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Iraqi protesters took to the streets on Thursday for the third time this week despite a curfew, with at least 21 killed in anti-corruption demonstrations that have rocked the country.
At least four Iraqi protesters were shot dead on Thursday as security forces used live fire to break up protests held for a third day despite a curfew imposed at dawn.

The deaths were reported in Amarah, after mass rallies against corruption and employment spread to the southern city.

Another protester was shot dead on Thursday in the province of Dhi Qar, where protests have been the bloodiest, regional health chief Abdulhussein al-Jaberi said. 

Thursday's ongoing demonstrations coincide with the 87th anniversary of Iraq's Independence Day.

At least 21 people have been killed so far as Iraq's security forces move to quash demonstrations complaining of widespread unemployment, corruption and poor public services.

Despite an indefinite curfew imposed earlier on Thursday by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the target of much of the protesters' ire, a few dozen demonstrators returned to the capital's central Tahrir Square in the morning.

Riot police encircled the protesters, then pushed them into side streets and fired into the air, an AFP photographer reported.

Two days of protests met with a violent security crackdown in the capital and the country's south have left more than a dozen people dead.

Overnight clashes in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Amarah raised the death toll from seven to at least 18 people, including a policeman, police and medical sources told Reuters on Thursday.

Abdul-Mahdi ordered the ban on movement across the capital, as well as curfews in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Najaf, in a bid to stem the growing protests.

Voicing a range of grievances against Abdul-Mahdi's government which took office a little under a year ago, protesters have been heard calling for his resignation in videos distributed on social media.

Protesters gather in Baghdad's Tayyaran Square on Wednesday evening [Getty]

Spontaneous protests

Thousands took to the streets on Tuesday in protests described by analysts as a rare display of spontaneous action, rather than having been called for by a political faction.

Former MP Shorouq al-Abaiji told The New Arab's Arabic service that the protesters were the "natural result of the failure of the Iraqi political system to achieve the most basic demands of the people".

Observers say that, despite fewer protesters turning out on Wednesday amid an increased security presence, the violent crackdown on dissent is likely to increase rage against the government and spur on further demonstrations.

Prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has also urged a "general strike", a call his thousands of followers will likely take up.

Tensions have also been exacerbated by a near-total internet shutdown.

While internet access was intermittent on Wednesday, with internet monitor NetBlocks reporting systematic blocks to social media networks including Twitter and Facebook, AFP reported on Thursday that internet access was near impossible.

At least one overnight explosion hit Baghdad's Green Zone, where some ministries and embassies are located.

The apparent attack came just hours after security sources sealed off the Green Zone "until further notice", fearing furious protesters could swarm state buildings or foreign missions.

More than 400 people have been wounded so far in the demonstrations, according to health officials.

'De-escalation needed'

The United Nations' top official in Iraq met with some protesters in Baghdad on Wednesday night to call for "direct dialogue" between them and government officials. 

"The ability to preserve the right to protest is a sign of political and democratic maturity. Moreover, the use of force only fuels the anger," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said in a statement. "De-escalation is urgently needed."

The violence by security forces has drawn a slew of criticism from Iraqi leaders including President Barham Saleh, and parliament has demanded and investigation.

The violence drew a slew of criticism from Iraqi leaders including President Barham Saleh, and has demanded an investigation into the incidents.

But others in the government, including Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, have blamed the violence on "infiltrators" and "aggressors".

The fresh protest movement follows months of simmering frustrations over rampant power cuts, water shortages and state corruption.

The demonstrators appear to be overwhelmingly young, andseem to have been pushed to the streets by staggering rates of youth unemployment, which is around 25 percent or double the adult rate according to the World Bank.

"We want jobs and better public services. We've been demanding them for years and the government has never responded," said Abdallah Walid, a 27-year-old protester.

Similar demonstrations engulfed Basra last summer and effectively ended former premier Haider al-Abadi's chances at a second term.

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