Demonstrators gathered last week to decry what they described as endemic corruption. But by Sunday, it was a revolt against the entire system.
“We’ve had enough — enough!” shouted one young man in Baghdad, bent double and heaving as he ran from a volley of tear gas. “They stole our futures, and now they’re killing us.”
With the Internet suspended, Iraq’s television screens are now the stage for a frantic tug of war, as authorities project normalcy and protesters vent their rage.
State media shows taxis rolling calmly through Baghdad. Opposition outlets broadcast bullets whistling through angry crowds.
In a cabinet meeting late Saturday, Abdul Mahdi announced a 17-point recovery plan that his government hopes might calm the people. Construction of more housing units and stipends for the unemployed were raised, as well as compensation for families of young men killed during the demonstrations.
But Sunday evening, protesters gathered again in Baghdad. Demonstrators said security forces continued to use tear gas and live ammunition. Police and gunmen have raided several news outlets that have broadcast footage from the protests.
“This must stop,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the top U.N. official in Iraq. She called for those behind the violence to be held responsible.
Abdul Mahdi came to power last year as a consensus candidate promising reform, but he has achieved little in a fractured political environment. His government has tried to calm the streets, but it has had limited impact.
At a charged meeting Saturday, parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi told protest leaders their “voice was being heard.” But it remained unclear who or what could address the grievances that exploded in the largely spontaneous demonstrations that appear to have formed without the instigation of powerful politicians or clerics.
“These speeches are meant as anesthesia for the people. They’re trying to calm us down,” said 37-year-old Ali Mohammed. “They have to realize this isn’t like before. If they don’t make changes, things are going to get worse.”
In Baghdad, the protesters are mostly young men who say they’ve grown up without a future. Born around the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, their childhoods battered by war, in adulthood, they have been shut out of a job market that favors those with political connections.
Two years after the Islamic State was officially defeated in Iraq, many of the country’s nearly 14 million people live in worsening conditions, despite record oil output. Protesters have also rallied against Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.
Security forces clashed with demonstrators late into Saturday night, firing tear gas and bullets into crowds that held their ground. Young men covered their faces to protect themselves from the stinging fumes.
“We’re not leaving!” shouted one. “Look what they’re doing to us!”
Angry chants were lost amid the screech of ambulance sirens. Doctors in nearby hospitals said they’ve been overwhelmed. Some people have been shot. One protester had tire marks across his chest. His friends said he had been hit by a military vehicle.
Ambulance crews worked through the night as doctors treated people in the streets. At one point, a convoy of ambulances was forced to turn back without patients after tear gas landed where medics worked. Gunmen shot at the vehicles as they fled.
Demonstrators in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah set fire to government buildings. Security forces have arrested protesters in their hospital beds.
Influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party controls the largest bloc in parliament, has demanded the government’s resignation and called for early elections. Iraqi and Western officials said support for a snap election is growing, but there were few obvious candidates to step into a vacuum left by Abdul Mahdi, and powerful interests could still stymie reform.
“The protesters have to be smart here and demand a timeline for change,” said Sabah Zangana, an Iraqi analyst. “Otherwise, these promises will be nothing more than a temporary fix.”