Thousands of Iraqi protesters stood fast in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, defying a bloody crackdown that killed scores over the weekend and an overnight raid by security forces seeking to disperse them.
Young men erected barricades on a bridge leading to the capital’s fortified Green Zone against security forces who continued to lob tear gas canisters towards them. Medical and security sources said 77 people were injured.
“We give you our life and blood, Iraq,” they chanted.
At least 74 Iraqis were killed on Friday and Saturday and hundreds wounded as demonstrators clashed with security forces and militia groups in a second wave of protests against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government. About 231 people were killed in October.
Despite the OPEC member country’s vast oil wealth, many Iraqis live in poverty or have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic healthcare and education. Iraq is struggling to recover from years of conflict following the US-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis blame a political elite they say is subservient to one or other of Iraq’s main allies, the United States and Iran. Many suspect these use Iraq as a proxy in their struggle for regional influence, without concern for the needs of ordinary people.
“I ask you Abdul Mahdi, it’s been 16 years and you’ve done nothing. We’re going from bad to worse,” said Ma’azir Yas. “This protest is peaceful and the young men only ask for their rights: jobs and services.”
Protesters were locked in a cycle of advancing deeper into Tahrir Square and towards the Green Zone which houses government buildings, then retreating when tear gas canisters became too much.
Many used creative ways to defend themselves including one protester who used a satellite dish as a shield. Tuk-tuks swarmed around, carrying injured young men to ambulances.
Young men cleaning up feared a repeat of Saturday night’s crackdown by security forces, when demonstrations were broken up with tear gas and stun grenades. Some protesters regrouped.
Thousands gathered in Nassiriya, Hilla and the Shi’ite holy city Kerbala.
Protesters set fire to the provincial council building’s entrance in Kerbala and security forces used tear gas to disperse them. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters in Hilla. Sunday’s protests in Nassiriya were peaceful.
Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service said it deployed in Baghdad to protect important state buildings “from undisciplined elements”.
Security sources told Reuters the Service’s forces in Baghdad were told to “use all necessary measures” to end protests against Abdul Mahdi’s government.
Counter-terrorism forces beat and arrested dozens of protesters in Nassiriya on Saturday.
The unrest ended two years of relative stability in Iraq, which from 2003 to 2017 endured foreign occupation, civil war and an Islamic State insurgency.
It poses the biggest challenge to Abdul Mahdi since he took office a year ago. Despite promising reforms and ordering a broad cabinet reshuffle, he has struggled to address protesters’ complaints.
Political alliances backing his fragile coalition government have begun to fracture, making his position precarious.