Crowds in Baghdad and much of southern Iraq are calling for an overhaul of Iraq’s political system, with demands centering on jobs, equality and an end to corruption. Iraq’s prime minister has shown few signs of being able to satisfy those demands.
A deadly crackdown on demonstrations earlier this month set the stage for Friday’s violence. At least 165 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured in the last round of clashes, according to Iraqi health and human rights officials.
An official investigation into the handling of those earlier protests absolved top government authorities of blame for the use of live ammunition against demonstrators, concluding that local commanders “lost control over their forces.” But in private, Iraqi officials accuse powerful Iranian-linked militias for sending snipers onto the streets and targeting journalists who covered the fallout.
In answering a nationwide call for fresh protests, thousands rallied across the country Friday as black-clad riot police met the crowds with lethal violence. Clashes continued into the night across Baghdad and much of southern Iraq. At least 27 government buildings were attacked, the human rights commission said, with several set ablaze. In the cities of Basra and Wasit, the government declared curfews.
Security forces fanned out across the capital, and when demonstrators tried to march on the heavily fortified Green Zone, the violence began. Security forces fired volley after volley of tear gas. Water cannons followed, then rubber bullets.
Ambulances screamed in and out of the central Tahrir Square, whisking the wounded to the hospital along roads that looked almost deserted. Young men reeled as tear gas filled the air. Many deaths appeared to have been caused by suffocation or in stampedes caused by tear gas volleys.
Several people were killed after being struck in the head with searing tear gas canisters. White fumes of tear gas kept rising around one lifeless body as it lay on the ground, draped in an Iraqi flag.
The violence weeks earlier had taken place in a near information blackout: The country’s Internet was cut, journalists were threatened, and hospitals said they had been forbidden to share casualty counts with the media.
Protesters said the earlier crackdown had motivated them to join the crowds on Friday.
“I don’t want the blood of those who died [before] to go in vain,” said 24-year old Muna Ali, dressed in canary yellow and holding the national flag aloft.
This month’s unrest has largely been confined to poor neighborhoods, and participants are overwhelming male. But Ali said her presence had been inspired by the images of women and girls participating in separate anti-government protests in Lebanon.
“I didn’t tell my parents, but I’m here to demand my rights. This is bigger than jobs and services; it’s about the whole country. We want our country back,” she said.
Despite Iraq’s vast oil wealth, some 7 million people live in poverty. For the most part, the protesters are part of a generation raised in the shadow of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The political system that emerged in its wake — where power is shared among groups from various religious and ethnic sects — has entrenched widespread corruption, experts say, and left political connections as important ways for families to get ahead.
On the eve of Friday’s protests, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had tried for the third time in weeks to calm the streets. He said that constitutional amendments would be introduced and warned that government resignations would only “lead the country into chaos.”
The country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also called on protesters and security forces to remain peaceful.
“Real reform and change in the country has to be through peaceful methods,” a Sistani representative said during a sermon in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Loveluck reported from Irbil, Iraq. Asser Khattab contributed from Beirut.