Thousands of Iraqis protested in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square for a fifth day, angered by reports of security forces killing demonstrators in Kerbala and the prime minister’s refusal to call early elections.
It was the largest gathering in the capital since a wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government and the ruling elite resumed on Friday. A populist cleric who helped install the premier called for his removal.
Security forces on the Jumhuriya Bridge lobbed tear gas at protesters in Tahrir Square who tried to break through to the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions.
“With life and blood we defend you Iraq,” they chanted.
The crowd was mostly young men, many draped in Iraqi flags. Surrounding streets brimmed with cars, taxis, motorcycles and tuk-tuks as people made their way in.
Earlier, trade unions announced they would call strikes, following lawyers and teachers.
The latest protest in Baghdad took place after a night of violence in the Shi’ite holy city Kerbala, where, according to medical and security sources, Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters and killed at least 18 people.
At least 865 people were wounded, the sources said.
Kerbala’s governor and police chief, Iraq’s prime minister and the military all denied any deaths. Security and medical sources said local authorities were ordered to cover up the deaths.
The United Nations representative in Iraq condemned the violence and called for dialogue.
“Recent developments across Iraq, in particular Kerbala, are alarming. Witness reports indicate live fire was used against demonstrators, causing high numbers of casualties,” the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said in a statement.
The death toll since the unrest started on October. 1 is now at least 250.
“We want government gone. Our demand is not for Abdul Mahdi to resign, if he resigns, it’s not enough. Parliament must go, the parties must go,” protester Salah al Suweidi said in Tahrir Square.
“Yesterday we broke curfew and stayed the night, we will do so again, even if 10, 20, 100 or 1 000 die. What happened in Kerbala will not be ignored. The blood of our brothers in Kerbala and other provinces will not be in vain.”
In southern Iraq, protesters blocked the entrance to Umm Qasr commodities port near Basra, slowing operations by around 80%, port employees and local officials said.
HARDSHIP AND CORRUPTION
The protests, driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption, have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq.
The country suffered for decades under the rule of Saddam Hussein and UN sanctions, the 2003 U.S. invasion and civil war it unleashed and the battle against Islamic State, declared won in 2017.
An OPEC member, it has vast oil wealth, but many Iraqis live in poverty or have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic healthcare and education. Most protesters are young men who want jobs.
Many Iraqis criticise a political elite they say is subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s two main allies, the United States and Iran. They use Iraq as a proxy to pursue regional influence, without concern for the needs of ordinary people.
Despite promising reforms and a broad reshuffle of the cabinet, Abdul Mahdi struggled to address demonstrators’ complaints.
Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who backs parliament’s largest bloc and helped bring Abdul Mahdi’s coalition government to power, invited his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri to help oust the premier.
Sadr asked Abdul Mahdi to call an early election but the premier refused, saying it would be quicker if Sadr agreed with his rival on a replacement.
Parliament passed measures aimed at placating protesters but many said it was too little too late. These included reduced salaries for officials, formation of a committee to draft constitutional amendments and dissolution of provincial and local councils outside semi-autonomous Kurdistan.
The root cause of grievances is the sectarian power-sharing system of governance introduced in Iraq after 2003, analysts and activists say.
After Saddam was ousted, opposition groups returning from exile divided state positions among themselves after dismantling the civil service under the banner of “de-Ba’athification”, or getting rid of Saddam’s people.
This was replaced by patronage networks, not just in the new ruling Shi’ite majority political elites, but also in Kurdistan. Sunni elites followed suit.