At least eight people were killed in new clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters in the sixth day of unrest with the death toll now over a hundred and more than 6 000 wounded.
The eight were killed in eastern Baghdad, police sources said, after police backed by armed forces used live rounds. The demonstrators took to the streets hours after government announced reforms to ease anger over corruption and unemployment.
The unrest is a major security and political challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government since it took power a year ago. The clashes revive fears of a new spiral of violence that could suck in influential militia groups and be exploited by Islamic State.
Before the latest clashes in the Sadr City residential district, an Interior Ministry spokesman said 104 people were killed, including eight security force members since last Tuesday.
He said 6 107 were wounded, including more than a thousand police and security force officers and dozens of buildings were set ablaze. He denied security forces had shot directly at protesters.
Two years after oil-producing Iraq declared the defeat of Islamic State, security has improved but corruption is rampant, wrecked infrastructure has not been rebuilt and jobs are scarce.
The protests, which hit many parts of the country, do not appear to be organised by a single political group and seem to catch government by surprise.
At an emergency cabinet meeting government agreed a 17-point plan to increase subsidised housing for the poor, stipends for unemployed and training programmes and small loan initiatives for unemployed youth.
The families of those killed during demonstrations will receive handouts and care usually granted to security force members killed during war, it said.
“Amid all of this, I swear my only concern is for the casualties,” Abdul Mahdi was quoted by state television as saying in the cabinet meeting.
Details of the plan were disseminated on social media, but there was a continued internet outage across most of the country.
Twenty-six people were killed in clashes on Saturday and Sunday in Baghdad, police and medical sources said.
Police fired live rounds during clashes in Nasiriya on Saturday, wounding 24 people including seven police, according to security, hospital and morgue sources. One person was killed on Saturday during demonstrations in Diwaniya.
Protesters torched the headquarters of political parties in Nasiriya, police said. These included the powerful Dawa party that dominated Iraq’s government from 2003 to 2018 .
Calm returned on Sunday to heavily guarded Baghdad and southern provinces where there were heavy clashes in the past few days. Violence broke out again in eastern Baghdad after nightfall.
Small protests were dispersed without violent outbreaks in Diwaniya and the holy city Najaf.
“Security forces did all they could to preserve the safety of protesters and security personnel,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Saad Maan said. “We express regret over the bloodshed.”
Maan dismissed talk of clashes between security forces and demonstrators, saying there were “malicious forces” targeting both groups. Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights criticised the police response.
“There is no justification for the use of live bullets against peaceful demonstrators,” Aqeel al-Musawi, the commission’s head, said in a statement. “Government has a duty to protect demonstrators and enable them to express legitimate demands smoothly.”
FEARS OF ESCALATION
Anger among protesters runs deep and government faces opposition from parliamentary blocs boycotting legislative meetings.
Influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a mass popular following and controls a large chunk of parliament, demanded government resign and snap elections be held. At least one other major parliamentary grouping allied itself with Sadr.
The governor of Baghdad province resigned after accusations he failed to improve conditions in the city.
Powerful political parties dominating Iraqi politics since the 2003 US-led invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein have not indicated they are willing to relinquish control.
The violence continued as people began journeying across southern Iraq for the Shi’ite pilgrimage Arbaeen, expected to attract 20 million worshippers.