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As Iraq protesters mock security forces, the death toll keeps climbing

Deadly protests escalate in Iraq

Baghdad — "I'm sorry, I can't let you through without orders," said the Iraqi civilian manning the makeshift checkpoint, smirking at the befuddled policeman he had waved down in the capital Baghdad. After a month of defying official curfews and road closures to protest, Iraqis have flipped the rule book.

One recent evening, police officers erected a row of concrete t-walls on the same street, sealing off access to Tahrir Square, ground zero for protests in the capital.

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An Iraqi protester drives a tuktuk away from amassing security forces during clashes on Martyrs' Bridge (Jisr Al-Shuhada) in the capital Baghdad on November 7, 2019, amid ongoing anti-government demonstrations. GETTY

Demonstrators — one riding a motorized red rickshaw known as a tuk-tuk — sprung into action, chasing down the police. The tuk-tuk came to a screeching halt in front of the truck, blocking its exit as young Iraqi men pressured officers to reopen the road to Tahrir. 

Improbably, the officers relented, and the enormous truck reversed up the road to lift the barriers as the victorious tuk-tuk followed. Protesters swiftly hung a sign nearby: "Re-opened by order of the people!" 

Death toll mounts

Demonstrations broke out on October 1 in outrage over rampant corruption and unemployment. They were met with a violent crackdown that left at least 250 people dead, and the toll climbs virtually every day.

An Iraqi man mourns over the coffin of a demonstrator who was killed at anti-government protests, during a funeral in Basra
An Iraqi man mourns over the coffin of a demonstrator who was killed at anti-government protests, during a funeral in Basra, Iraq, November 8, 2019. REUTERS

Iraqi security forces shot dead at least six protesters in central Baghdad between Thursday evening and Friday morning, police and medical sources told media outlets in the country. At least four other protesters were reportedly killed and more than 100 wounded when Iraqi security forces opened fire to disperse a demonstration in front of the regional government headquarters in Basra on Thursday night.

Iraq's state-run TV network quoted the spokesman of the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, as saying "deviant parties" had opened fire on both protesters and security forces in Basra in order to cause chaos.

There is no official death toll confirmed by Iraq's central government from the protest chaos that has engulfed much of the country, and reliable information and imagery from the protests has been difficult to come by as the government has cut the internet connection.

For the fourth day, most internet service was out nationwide on Friday, with growing concerns that the blackout could hinder the documentation of potential human rights violations.

"By order of the people!"

Since resuming later last month, the protests have shifted to campaigns of non-violent resistance. Across the country's south, Iraqis are carrying out sit-ins at schools, on highways and main bridges, and near government buildings.

"No country? No class!" is the new slogan for thousands of Iraqi university students and school children refusing to go back to class until they see sweeping reforms.

The teachers' syndicate has extended its strike, despite threats from officials that protesting students or staff would face legal consequences. 

Most official administrations have been shut in large cities, with large banners also proclaiming the newfound authority: "Closed by order of the people!"

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Iraqi protesters march during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in the southern city of Diwaniyah on November 3, 2019. GETTY

In Diwaniyah, 130 miles south of Baghdad, the government's provincial headquarters has literally become a dump.

The building has been shuttered since protesters stormed it last month, and now rubbish trucks and residents add daily to the growing piles of trash there.

And in Rumaitha, the southern town known for sparking Iraq's 1920 revolution against the British mandate, residents were giving the government a taste of its own medicine.

At the heart of a recent demonstration there, a protester grabbed a megaphone and cleared his throat.

"We are declaring a curfew on all government employees and vehicles, and the closing of all party headquarters!" he declared, as people cheered all around him.

What's behind protest movements around the world?

Cities and towns across the south have imposed curfews in an attempt to clamp down on protests, but as the movement drags on, residents have increasingly ignored the restrictions.

In Baghdad, the military announced last week it would begin imposing a nightly curfew from midnight until 6:00 a.m. That evening saw the largest protests yet in Tahrir, as streams of people defied the order and declared their opposition to the government.

They have remained camped in the square, setting up tents and occupying an 18-storey building long known as "the Turkish restaurant". Now it is called, among other names, "Revolution Mountain."

From there, young men watch the crowds gathering in Tahrir and along the key Al-Jumhuriyah bridge leading into the Green Zone.

Riot police have set up barricades along the bridge to keep protesters from entering the enclave, where government offices and embassies are located. For those watching from above, their perch provided them a rare opportunity to monitor - and mock - security forces.

"Welcome to the morning shift!" they call out over loudspeakers to the fully-equipped police units below, before blaring Arabic love ballads typically heard on morning radio in Iraq. Down below, protesters hand out fake Iraqi identity cards, where the nationality is listed as "Honorable Iraqi," and profession as "peaceful protester."

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