Protests escalate in Iraq: 9 dead, hundreds wounded
BAGHDAD – At least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in clashes that spread across several Iraqi provinces on Wednesday as security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas for the second day to disperse anti-government protesters demanding jobs, improved services and an end to corruption.
The deaths brought the overall number of protesters killed in two days of violence to nine. Protests on Tuesday had left two dead _ one in Baghdad and another in the city of Nasiriyah _ and over 200 wounded.
The renewed clashes occurred despite a massive security dragnet mounted by the government in an effort to quash the economically-driven protests.
Hundreds of heavily armed security forces and riot police deployed on Baghdad streets, blocking all intersections leading to a major central square Wednesday to prevent a repeat of Tuesday’s protests. Parked armored personnel carriers and SUVs stood guard and by mid-afternoon, residents said authorities had shut down social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Groups of protesters continued to take to the streets, some of them calling for toppling the government. Thick black smoke hung over the city as demonstrators set fire to tires and garbage containers. Bursts of heavy gunfire could be heard intermittently. At night, protesters closed the road leading to Baghdad’s airport with roadblocks and burning tires, keeping the way into the city open for arrivals.
The confrontations quickly spread to at least seven other provinces in the country, with an estimated 3,000 demonstrators taking to the streets in the southern city of Basra in a largely peaceful protest on Wednesday evening. Protests and clashes were also reported in Najaf, Nasiriyah, Waset, Diwaniyah and in other places.
The violence was some of the worst between protesters and security forces in Iraq, signaling that the war-weary country could be facing a new round of political instability. Iraq has been caught in the middle of U.S.-Iran tensions in the Middle East, putting an additional strain on the fragile government in Baghdad that hosts thousands of U.S. troops and powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad called for restraint from all sides. “The right to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right in all democracies, but there is no place for violence in demonstrations from any side,” it posted on Twitter.
The protests, organized on social media, started in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, initially driven by economy woes. They began peacefully, calling for an end to corruption, improved basic services and more jobs. But they soon turned violent after security forces fought back demonstrators with water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition.
Protesters responded by calling for toppling the government, throwing stones at security forces and setting tires and trash containers on fire. At least two protesters were killed and more than 200 were wounded.
A few dozen protesters tried to reach Tahrir Square again on Wednesday morning but were met with scores of riot police who formed a human barrier and soldiers who blocked roads, sometimes with barbed wire. Security forces again fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air to disperse the protesters, chasing them away, according to officials.
Saadoun Street, a major commercial thoroughfare leading to Tahrir Square, was deserted and all the shops and restaurants were closed. Smoke could be seen near Tahrir and intermittent gunfire could be heard, as well as ambulance sirens.
“They have transformed Tahrir Square into Tahrir barracks,” said Hussein Saleh, 24. “There are more security forces than there are protesters,” he added, standing with a small placard that read: “I am protesting to take my rights.”
Security and medical officials said three protesters were killed in Baghdad Wednesday and four in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of the capital. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. In Zaafaraniyah, a 10-year-old girl was also killed when she was hit by a car speeding away from a checkpoint amid protests. /gsg
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