The spontaneous rallies have been spurred mostly by youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country. Most of the demonstrators were peaceful; many had their faces covered with masks or Iraqi flags.
The streets of Baghdad were littered with tear gas canisters and empty bullet casings. Smoke from burned tires rose above the streets as protesters tried to prevent security forces from advancing. The forces spread barbed wires and armored vehicles to block their path.
“Even with a curfew, we are not turning back,” shouted protester Abu Qassim.
The unrest is the most serious challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old government, which also has been caught in the middle of increasing U.S.-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Middle East expert Jennifer Cafarella, with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said the immediate and widespread use of force against protesters in multiple provinces demonstrates “that the security forces are overwhelmed by the volume and rate of spread” of the rallies.
There were indications that the regional tension is at play. Some Baghdad demonstrators blamed Iranian-backed groups within the security forces for the violence. Media affiliated with the Iranian-backed groups have pointed fingers at the United States and Saudi Arabia for the unrest.
Cafarella said that indicates the “potential for escalation” between protesters and these forces.
One protester in Baghdad held up an empty casing to journalists, screaming: “Look! These are Iranian bullets!”
In the last three days, at least 20 protesters and one policeman were killed in four provinces. On Thursday, the first death was reported in Baghdad where one protester was killed as the demonstrators pushed their way toward Tahrir Square in the city center. The square has been off-limits since Wednesday night just before the curfew.
Soon after, protesters overpowered a soldier in his armored vehicle, setting it on fire and warning other security forces to stay away from the square. The protesters then marched toward the square. There were also fires set to parts of government buildings in the southern provinces of Najaf and Dhiqar.
At least five protesters were shot and killed Thursday in Zaafaraniya, a southern Baghdad neighborhood, according to police and a medial official.
Explosions were heard before dawn inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government offices and foreign embassies. The U.S.-led coalition said an investigation was underway into the attack, adding that no coalition forces or assets were hit. An Iraqi security official said two mortar shells hit the Green Zone, falling on an open space and not causing any injuries. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In the latest deaths, at least six protesters were shot and killed Thursday in the city of Nasiriyah, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Baghdad, a medical official told The Associated Press. Nasiriyah has seen the most violence since the protests began Tuesday.
The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.
“I came here to seize back my rights,” said Ahmed Abdul-Sattar, a protester in his early 20s. “I can’t get a government job or find any other job. It is a corrupt government and we came here to take our rights.”
Two demonstrators were killed Tuesday and at least 17 deaths were reported Wednesday, including a policeman, in rallies in Nasiriyah, Kut, and Amara, according to security officials.
The coalition urged all sides “to reduce tensions and reject violence.”
Iraq’s state news agency said Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi invited representatives of the protesters to parliament to discuss their demands. Iraqi state TV broadcast numbers for the office of the prime minister in an outreach to the seemingly leaderless protests.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry summoned Iran Ambassador Iraj Masjedi to denounce his threat that Tehran would retaliate to a U.S. attack anywhere in the world, including in Iraq. A ministry statement said Iraqi official Abdul-Karim Hashem told him that American troops are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government and that Iraq will not accept becoming an arena for international conflicts.
Masjedi recently told Iraq’s Dijla TV that if the Americans attack Iran, Tehran “will strike back anywhere, including (in) Iraq.”
Iran urged its citizens to postpone pilgrimages to Shiite holy sites in Iraq amid the turmoil. Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope the Iraqi government, political parties and groups would help calm the disturbances that it said were being exploited by foreign elements.
The Baghdad curfew was announced early Thursday following a meeting on the protests by Iraq’s top leaders.
Authorities said the curfew was meant to “protect general peace” and protesters from “infiltrators” who committed attacks against security forces and public property. It excludes travelers to and from the Baghdad airport, and Iraqi Airways said flights were operating as scheduled.
Baghdad’s main streets were largely deserted Thursday morning, except for Iraqi army vehicles. Some side roads were blocked with barbed wire.
When the demonstrators tried to reach a nearby bridge leading to the Green Zone, Iraqi security forces started shooting automatic rifles above the crowd. They also fired tear gas, according to an AP cameraman.
After dark, dozens of protesters blocked a section of the highway leading to the airport from Baghdad, burning tires and sitting on the ground, a police official said. One witness reported intense gunfire, apparently as security forces tried to open the road.
The lanes leading away from the airport remained open, the official said.
Other protesters stormed municipal offices in Baghdad’s northern suburbs of Taji and Sabaa al-Bour and set them ablaze, according to a police official and a health worker, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
NetBlocks, which monitors cybersecurity and internet governance, reported that web access was cut off across much of Iraq. Social and messaging apps, used to organize the protests, also were blocked. Iraqis abroad campaigned on social media to spread videos and news from inside the country, using the hashtag #Save—the—Iraqi-People. No political party has joined the campaign so far.
Politicians denounced the violence and at least one, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called for an investigation.
Similar protests have gripped Egypt and Lebanon, amid accusations of major corruption. But in Egypt, the government’s intense crackdown has effectively ended the small, but rare demonstrations. In Lebanon, the protests were limited amid an unprecedented foreign currency crunch and government promises to address the crisis.
In Iraq’s southern city of Basra, unknown assailants early Thursday shot and killed an Iraqi activist Hussein Adel Madani and his wife. Security officials said masked gunmen stormed the house and killed the cartoonist and his wife. Their 2-year-old daughter, Zahra, was not harmed.
The activists had taken part in protests in the city Wednesday night. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the killings.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Nabil Al-Jurani in Basra, Iraq, contributed.