BAGHDAD -- Clashes between Iraqi protesters and security forces in central Baghdad killed four people and wounded 62 on Thursday, Iraqi medical and security officials said, as authorities continued to clamp down on the anti-government demonstrations.
According to the officials, the casualties occurred in the Khilani area near Tahrir Square, which has been witnessing protests for weeks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The protests have mostly been taking place in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces. At least 320 people have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when protesters took to the streets in the tens of thousands.
Many of the protesters have been killed by gas canisters. Amnesty International says security forces in Baghdad have fired military-grade tear gas grenades directly into the crowds, causing horrific wounds and occasionally lodging the projectiles in people's skulls.
Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari said Thursday that autopsy reports found tear gas cannisters responsible for protester deaths had not been purchased by the government, hinting that they came into the country through other parties.
He said that the projectiles discovered in bodies of the protesters during the autopsies were “not imported by the Iraqi government or any official Iraqi body.” He did not elaborate further about where they had come from. Some protesters have said they suspect the canisters come from Iran, whose influence they partially blame for the violent crackdown.
The protesters are outraged by what they say is widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including electricity cuts, despite the country’s vast oil wealth.
They have so far rejected government proposals for economic and constitutional reforms and are calling on the entire political leadership to resign, including the Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqi authorities began clamping down on public demonstrations last week by pushing protesters back from three bridges spanning the Tigris River toward the fortified Green Zone, where the seat of government and a host of foreign embassies are located.
Iraqi protesters say the intensifying crackdown has been instilling fear and reducing turnout, but have renewed calls for people to return to Baghdad’s streets in large numbers later this week, for a million person march on Friday.
Human Rights Watch said Iraqi security forces have been attacking medical workers for treating protesters, accusing them of firing on medical workers, tents and ambulances with tear gas and live ammunition. The attacks have left at least one medic dead, it said.
“Medics have become another victim of the state’s excessive force,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“These attacks show an utter disregard for the overriding need to ensure medical workers can do their essential job.”