BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunfights between protesters and security forces broke out in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya on Wednesday, with elite counter-terrorism troops deploying after police “lost control” of the situation, police sources told Reuters.
Two protesters had been killed in the city on Wednesday and one on Tuesday after police opened fire to disperse protests.
Five people were killed overall and at least 132 wounded on Wednesday in renewed nationwide clashes between demonstrators and Iraqi security forces, the largest display of public anger against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's year-old government.
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 protests, which started on Tuesday over unemployment, corruption, and poor public services, have escalated, with many chanting for the “fall of the regime”, a slogan first popularized 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.
Five people were killed or died from their wounds on Wednesday, taking the toll to at least seven as at least two people were killed and 200 wounded on Tuesday.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said one child was killed on Wednesday when a protester threw a bottle filled with gasoline at a vehicle carrying civilian passengers in Baghdad. Another was killed in the southern city of Emara and one protester died of wounds sustained on Tuesday.
Police and the army opened fire and launched tear gas canisters to disperse hundreds of protesters all over Baghdad. Protesters blocked the main highway connecting the capital to Iraq's northern provinces.
Protests erupted all over southern Iraq – heartland of the Shi'ite Muslim majority who 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 Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.
In Kut, protesters tried to break into the municipality building. Hundreds were out on the streets of Hilla and Diwaniya while dozens gathered in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.
Thousands gathered in the oil-rich city of Basra but the protests were peaceful. There were peaceful protests in Samawa. Curfews were later imposed in Nassiriya and two other southern cities, Amara and Hilla, the police sources told Reuters.
Small protests also took place in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Tikrit, as well as the eastern province of Diyala.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, who are locked in a political standoff.
Islamic State militants could also take advantage of any chaos and thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in the country in positions not far from those of Iran-allied Shi'ite militias.
“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.
Internet access was cut off across much of Iraq, internet blockage observatory NetBlocks said.
Abdul Mahdi on Wednesday 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 defense 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.
Oil-producing Iraq has suffered hardships for decades, from rule by Saddam Hussein including years subject to U.N. sanctions, to the 2003 U.S. invasion and civil war it unleashed, and then the battle against Islamic State, which was declared won in 2017.
Corruption is widespread and basic services such as power and water are lacking.
The government said on Tuesday that 40 members of the security forces were hurt and at least 11 more were injured on Wednesday.