BAGHDAD: At least four people were killed and dozens were wounded in clashes in Iraq 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 six. 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 on Wednesday to prevent a repeat of Tuesdays 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.
The confrontations spread to at least seven other provinces in the country, with an estimated 3,000 protesters taking to the streets in the southern city of Basra 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 US-Iran tensions in the Middle East, putting an additional strain on the weak government in Baghdad that hosts thousands of US troops and powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
The US 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, organised 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.