Demonstrators run as they take part in a protest over unemployment, corruption and poor public services, in Basra [Essam al-Sudani/Reuters]
Published in AlJazeera on Oct 3rd, 2019,
Protesters defy curfew to gather in Baghdad after at least 13 killed and hundreds injured in two days of demonstrations.
An indefinite curfew has been imposed in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and southern cities after two days of anti-government protests descended into violence and left at least 13 people dead and hundreds more injured.
On Thursday morning, riot police fired in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters angry at high unemployment gathered at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad in defiance of the curfew.
“We slept here so the police don’t take the place,” one demonstrator told AFP news agency before being pushed back by the police.
Since erupting in Baghdad on Tuesday, the protests have spread to other cities in the country’s south, posing a challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s one-year-old government.
Curfews were also imposed in the holy city of Najaf and in Nasiriyah on Wednesday after security forces fired on protesters who demand end to rampant power cuts, water shortages and state corruption.
Anger over staggering rates of youth unemployment, which is around 25 percent or double the adult rate according to the World Bank, appears to have set off the latest round of demonstrations.
“We want jobs and better public services. We’ve been demanding them for years and the government has never responded,” said Abdallah Walid, a 27-year-old protester.
The southern city of Nasriya, which has seen so far the deadliest protests with a total of eight protesters and one police officer killed. More than 400 others have been wounded in the nationwide protests.
On Wednesday, the prime minister called for the curfew after convening his national security council for an emergency meeting.
“All vehicles and individuals are totally forbidden to move in Baghdad as of 5am today, Thursday, and until further notice,” Abdul Mahdi said in a statement.
Travellers to and from Baghdad airport, ambulances, government employees in hospitals, electricity and water departments, and religious pilgrims are exempt from the curfew, the statement said.
Demonstrations over similar issues engulfed the southern city of Basra last summer and effectively ended previous premier Haider al-Abadi’s chances of a second term.
Abdel Mahdi now faces a similar challenge just weeks before his government marks a full year in power.
Early Thursday, some cars and civilians were seen in the capital’s streets. Speaking two kilometres from Tahrir Square, the focal point of protests, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said there was an”eerie quiet over Baghdad” but that he could hear “sporadic gunfire towards Tahrir Square”.
Residents are wary that more protests could erupt after powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for “a general strike”.
Al-Sadr’s political bloc, Saeroon, which came first in last May’s parliamentary elections, is part of the ruling coalition.
The demonstrations have descended into violence as security forces responded to protesters by firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds.
“There was no spark for these protests,” Khan said. After a small protest was quickly dispersed by security forces on Tuesday, a social media call went out which resulted in thousands of people taking to the streets, he added.
The protesters are mostly “angy young people who are not aligned to any political or religious party”, Khan said.
“They are simply very frustrated at the fact that they don’t have jobs,” he said.
Green Zone explosion
The tension has been exacerbated by a near-total internet shutdown, the closure of government offices and at least one overnight explosion that hit the Green Zone, where some ministries and embassies are located.
A security source inside the area told AFP there were two blasts, likely caused by indirect fire a little over a week after two rockets hit near the US embassy there.
The apparent attack came hours after security forces sealed off the Green Zone “until further notice”, fearing angry protesters would swarm state buildings or foreign missions.
The Green Zone had been inaccessible for most Iraqis since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq but had reopened to the public in June.
It has often been the focal point for public anger, including in 2016 when al-Sadr’s supporters stormed it and paralysed state institutions.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES