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Anti-government protests in Baghdad turn deadly, threatening Iraq's fragile stability

Iraqi protesters demonstrate in central Baghdad against their government on October 25, 2019. Getty

Baghdad — Iraqi police fired live ammunition into the air as well as rubber bullets and dozens of tear gas canisters on Friday to disperse thousands of protesters on the streets of Baghdad, sending young demonstrators running for cover and enveloping a main bridge in the capital with thick white smoke. At least one protester was killed and dozens were injured in the first hours of the protest, security officials said.

The confrontations began early in the morning after anti-government demonstrations resumed, following a three-week hiatus. The protests began Oct. 1 over corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services but quickly turned deadly as security forces cracked down, using live ammunition for days.

The protests then spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces and authorities imposed a curfew and shut down the internet for days in an effort to quell the unrest.

The protests in Iraq threaten to plunge the country into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over ISIS.

Protests turn deadly

Thousands of people began converging to Baghdad's central Tahrir Square as of early Friday, carrying Iraqi flags and posters calling for change and reform.

However, after thousands of protesters removed metal security barriers and crossed the Jumhuriyya Bridge leading to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, soldiers fired tear gas to disperse them. After they tried to remove concrete barriers near the entrance of the Green Zone, they fired live rounds to push the protesters back.

Iraqi protesters carry a comrade who fainted due to tear gas used by security forces to disperse the crowds in central Baghdad during anti-government demonstrations in the Iraqi capital on October 25, 2019. Getty

There were unconfirmed reports from local health officials that as many as three protesters were killed in the chaos, at least one of them after being hit by a tear gas canister.

Riot police in full gear and armed soldiers lined the bridge. Ambulances and tuk-tuks zipped back and forth, ferrying the injured to hospitals. A reporter for Iraq's Sumariyya TV channel was among the injured.

"Baghdad hurra hurra, fasad barra barra!" the demonstrators chanted, Arabic for "Baghdad is free, corruption is out."

The semi-official High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq confirmed at least one death, as did two security officials. The commission said 224 people were taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas.

A 2nd bout of unrest

After a week of violence in the capital and the country's southern provinces earlier this month, a government-appointed inquiry determined that security forces had used excessive force, killing 149 people and wounding over 3,000. It also recommended the firing of security chiefs in Baghdad and the south. Eight members of the security forces were also killed.

The protests in Iraq are similar to those that have engulfed Lebanon in recent days in that they are economically-driven, largely leaderless and spontaneous against a sectarian-based system and a corrupt political class that has ruled for decades and driven the two countries to the brink of economic disaster.

"They (leaders) have eaten away at the country like cancer," said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing in the direction of the Green Zone. "They are all corrupt thieves," he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

An Iraqi protester displays an empty tear gas canister fired by security forces to disperse anti-government demonstrations and a blood-stained flag, on October 25, 2019 in Baghdad. Getty

Iraqi security forces and government officials vowed to avoid further deadly violence and had deployed heavily on the streets of Baghdad in anticipation of Friday's protests.

But in addition to the violence reported in Baghdad, the protests spread to the southern provinces later Friday, including the flashpoint city of Basra where some 4,000 people gathered near the provincial government building and there were reports it had been breached and set alight.

The current round of protests has been endorsed by Iraq's nationalist Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular Shiite support base and the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc's participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were a "conspiracy" from the outside.

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