Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi declared a curfew in Baghdad until further notice after seven people were killed and more than 400 injured in two days of nationwide anti-government protests.
Curfews were imposed earlier in three southern cities while counter-terrorism troops opened fire on protesters trying to storm Baghdad airport and deployed to the southern city Nassiriya after gunfights between protesters and security forces, police sources said.
“All vehicles and individuals are totally forbidden to move in Baghdad as of 5 am today, Thursday, and until further notice,” Abdul Mahdi said in a written statement.
Travellers to and from Baghdad airport, ambulances, government employees in hospitals, electricity and water departments and religious pilgrims are exempt from the curfew, the statement said. It is up to provincial governors to decide whether to declare curfews elsewhere.
Curfews were imposed in Nassiriya, Amara and Hilla as protests over unemployment, corruption and poor public services escalated.
Demands on Wednesday included the “fall of the regime” and protesters set government and political party buildings ablaze in two southern provinces.
The slogan, “the people demand the fall of the regime,” was popularised during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Five people were killed on Wednesday and more than 200 wounded in renewed clashes, the largest display of public anger against Abdul Mahdi’s year-old government. Two died on Tuesday.
Domestic instability coupled with regional tensions could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Abdul Mahdi’s fragile coalition government, sworn in as a compromise between rival factions after an inconclusive election.
“We are demanding change, we want the downfall of the whole government,” said a protester in Baghdad who declined to identify himself for fear of reprisal.
Any power vacuum in Iraq, should government be toppled, could prove challenging for the region, given Baghdad’s status as an ally of the United States and Iran, locked in a political stand-off.
Islamic State militants could take advantage of any chaos and thousands of US troops are stationed in positions not far from Iran-allied Shi’ite militias.
The five deaths on Wednesday included two protesters in Nassiriya. An Interior Ministry spokesman said a child was killed when a protester threw a gasoline-filled bottle at a vehicle in Baghdad and a protester was killed in Amara. The fifth death was a protester who died from wounds sustained on Tuesday.
SOUTHERN HEARTLAND RISES
Police and the army opened fire and launched tear gas canisters to disperse protesters in Baghdad. Protesters blocked the main highway connecting the capital to Iraq’s northern provinces.
“Our demands? We want work, we want to work. If they do not want to treat us as Iraqis, then tell us we are not Iraqi and we will find other nationalities and migrate to other countries,” said a protester in Baghdad.
Worst hit was southern Iraq, heartland of the Shi’ite Muslim majority who, after years of voting along sectarian lines, are turning on their political leaders for failing to deliver jobs and basic services.
Protesters burned government buildings in Nassiriya, Amara and the Shi’ite holy city Najaf. In Kut, protesters tried to break into the municipali building. Hundreds were on the streets in Hilla and Diwaniya.
Thousands gathered in Basra but protests were peaceful. There were also peaceful protests in Samawa.
Small protests took place in northern cities Kirkuk and Tikrit, as well as the eastern province Diyala.
Internet access was off across much of Iraq, internet blockage observatory NetBlocks said.
Abdul Mahdi chaired an emergency meeting of the national security council, which issued a statement regretting deaths and injuries on both sides.
“The council affirms the right to protest, freedom of expression and the protesters’ legitimate demands, but at the same time condemns acts of vandalism that accompanied the protests,” it said.
All military units were on high alert, the defence ministry said.
Security forces blocked roads in Baghdad, including a bridge to the fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies.
In an attempt to cool tempers, Abdul Mahdi promised jobs for graduates. He instructed the oil ministry and other government bodies to include a 50% quota for local workers in subsequent contracts with foreign companies.
Oil-producing Iraq has suffered hardships for decades, from rule by Saddam Hussein and years subject to UN sanctions, to the 2003 US invasion and civil war it unleashed and then the battle against Islamic State, declared won in 2017.
Corruption is widespread and basic services are lacking.
Government Tuesday 40 members of the security forces were hurt and at least 11 more were injured on Wednesday.