Death Toll Climbs as Iraqi Protests Escalate for Third Day
Police and gunmen exchanged fire in a southern Iraqi city on Thursday killing one person, after 11 others were killed overnight as nationwide anti-government protests escalated into one of the worst security challenges in years.
At least 19 people have been killed since the protests erupted three days ago, seemingly independent of any organized political party and taking the security forces by surprise.
Police said protesters carrying guns had fired at them in the town of Rifae on Thursday morning, near the southern city of Nassiriya where seven people died overnight. Fifty people were wounded in Rifae, including five policemen, they said, adding to hundreds already injured across the country.
Clashes in another southern city, Amara, killed four people overnight.
A curfew, lifted early in the morning in southern cities, was reimposed immediately in Nassiriya and later in Amara.
In Baghdad, the authorities attempted to head off protests by imposing a curfew from 5 a.m. Troops patrolled main roads and public spaces, but by morning sporadic demonstrations had begun, and troops opened fire with live rounds to disperse them.
“Despite the curfew we are going out to protest to call for our rights. We want to change the regime. They have arrested our people. They have done things to our people they did not even do to Islamic State,” a youth told Reuters TV after gunshots could be heard nearby.
“They have beat them up and humiliated them while firing live gunfire. What did we do? Are we suicide bombers? We are here to call for our rights and all these people.”
Residents of the Iraqi capital queued outside supermarkets and food stores to stock up on supplies in case of a sudden rise in prices or further security restrictions by authorities.
The demonstrations began in Baghdad on Tuesday and quickly grew and spread to other cities, mainly in Iraq’s south. Police have fired live rounds, tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
Protesters directed their anger at a government and political class they say is corrupt and doing nothing to improve their lives. They demanded jobs, better services and called for the “downfall of the regime.”
“The people are being robbed. The people are now begging on the street. There is no work, you come to protest, they fire at you. Live gunfire,” a man covering his face in a scarf told Reuters TV.
The violence has come just days before the Shi’ite pilgrimage of Arbaeen, when around 20 million worshipers are expected to journey across southern Iraq on foot for days in the largest annual gathering in the world.
The Iraqi unrest forced neighboring Iran to shut one of the major border crossings used by pilgrims.
Iraq has struggled to recover since defeating the Sunni Muslim hardline Islamic State group in 2017. Its infrastructure has been laid to waste by decades of sectarian civil war, foreign occupation, two US invasions, UN sanctions and war against its neighbors.
With the country at last at peace and free to trade, many Iraqis say their government has failed to rebuild the nation.
Similar demonstrations that began in oil-rich Basra last year prompted a heavy crackdown by security forces, killing nearly 30 people.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi chaired an emergency national security council meeting and ordered Thursday’s curfew in Baghdad. Only travelers to and from the airport, ambulances, some government employees and religious pilgrims were to be allowed on the streets.
Separately, police and medical sources said a couple who had been involved in the Basra protests last year were shot dead in their home late on Wednesday. Security sources said they had received threats from powerful militia groups in Basra last year.
Iraq has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, according to the International Monetary Fund, but much of its population of 40 million lives in poverty and without decent healthcare, education or power and water supply.