Iraq deployed counter-terrorism troops in the southern city of Nassiriya yesterday after police “lost control” when gunfights broke out between protesters and security forces, police sources said.
Curfews were later imposed in Nassiriya and two other southern cities, Amara and Hilla, the police sources told Reuters, as protests that began on Tuesday over unemployment, corruption and poor public services escalated.
Demands yesterday included the “fall of the regime” and government and political party buildings set ablaze in two other southern provinces.
Five people were killed yesterday and more than 200 were wounded in renewed clashes nationwide, the largest display of public anger against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s year-old government.
Two were killed on Tuesday.
Domestic instability coupled with regional tensions could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Abdul Mahdi’s fragile coalition government, sworn in last year as a compromise between rival factions after an inconclusive election.
The slogan “fall of the regime” was popularised during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
“We are demanding a change, we want the downfall of the whole government,” said one protester in Baghdad who declined to identify himself for fear of reprisal.
Any power vacuum in Iraq, should the government be toppled, could prove challenging for the region, given Baghdad’s status as an ally of both the United States and Iran. Islamic State militants could also take advantage of any chaos and thousands of US troops are stationed in the country in positions not far from those of militias. The death toll includes two protesters killed in Nassiriya yesterday.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said the dead also included a child killed when a protester threw a gasoline-filled bottle at a vehicle carrying civilians in Baghdad, and a protester killed in Amara. Police and the army opened fire and launched tear gas canisters to disperse hundreds of protesters in Baghdad.
Protesters blocked the main highway connecting the capital to Iraq’s northern provinces.
“Our demands? We want work, we want to work. If they do not want to treat us as Iraqis, then tell us we are not Iraqi and we will find other nationalities and migrate to other countries,” said one protester in Baghdad.
But worst hit was southern Iraq, where people after years of voting along sectarian lines, are turning on their political leaders for failing to deliver jobs and basic services.
Protesters burned down government buildings in Nassiriya, Amara and the holy city of Najaf. In Kut, protesters tried to break into the municipality building. Hundreds were out on the streets of Hilla and Diwaniya. Thousands gathered in the oil-rich city of Basra but the protests were peaceful.
There were peaceful protests in Samawa.
Small protests also took place in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Tikrit, as well as the eastern province of Diyala. Internet access was cut off across much of Iraq, Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks said.
Abdul Mahdi yesterday chaired an emergency meeting of the national security council, which issued a statement regretting deaths and injuries on both sides.“The council affirms the right to protest, freedom of expression, and the protesters’ legitimate demands, but at the same time condemns the acts of vandalism that accompanied the protests,” it said.
All military units were placed on high alert, the defence ministry said. Security forces blocked several roads in Baghdad, including a bridge that leads to the fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies.
In an attempt to cool tempers, Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday promised jobs for graduates.
He instructed the oil ministry and other government bodies to include a 50% quota for local workers in subsequent contracts with foreign companies.
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