Anti-government protesters crossed a major bridge in Baghdad on Monday, approaching the prime minister’s office and the headquarters of Iraq’s state-run TV, as security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas, killing at least five demonstrators and wounding dozens.
The protesters hurled rocks and set tires and dumpsters ablaze, sending clouds of black smoke into the air. Security forces flooded into the area to protect government buildings, and gunfire echoed through the streets.
Dozens of motorized rickshaws raced back and forth, ferrying the wounded to first aid stations at the main protest site in Tahrir Square.
For days, the protesters have been trying to cross the Tigris River to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered. Security forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets to push them back from barricades on the Al-Joumhouriyah and Al-Sanak Bridges, but they managed to break through on the Al-Ahrar Bridge farther north.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have demonstrated in central Baghdad and across mostly Shiite southern Iraq since Oct. 25, calling for the overthrow of the government and sweeping political change. The protests are fueled by anger at widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
Security forces have killed more than 260 people in two waves of protests since early October.
The latest clashes came a day after Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called on the protesters to reopen streets and for life to return to normal. His office is just outside the Green Zone.
Police and hospital officials said that at least five demonstrators and a member of the security forces were killed and that 60 people were wounded. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The clashes continued into the night, and security forces installed a concrete barrier on the Al-Ahrar Bridge to keep protesters out.
On Sunday night, Iraqi security forces shot and killed three protesters and wounded 19 in dispersing a violent demonstration outside the Iranian Consulate in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, police officials said. Seven policemen were also wounded, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The protesters have increasingly directed their anger at Iran, which has close ties to the government, Shiite political factions and paramilitary groups.
During the violence in Karbala, dozens of Iraqi protesters set tires ablaze. They scaled the concrete barriers ringing the consulate as others lobbed firebombs over the walls. They tried to bring down the Iranian flag and replace it with the Iraqi one but could not reach it. They then placed an Iraqi flag on the wall.
The protesters chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime!” — one of the slogans of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on the consulate, saying the security of diplomatic missions is a “red line that should not be crossed.” But protesters returned to the consulate late Monday.
On Sunday, Abdul-Mahdi called for markets, factories, schools and universities to reopen, saying the threat to oil facilities and the closing of roads had cost the country billions of dollars and contributed to price increases that affect everyone.
He differentiated between peaceful protesters who have turned the demonstrations into “popular festivals” and “outlaws” who he said had used demonstrators as “human shields” while attacking security forces.
Iran and its allies have accused the U.S. and other foreign powers of manipulating the protests to sow chaos.
Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one of Iraq’s most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, said in an interview aired on Iraqi TV that the U.S., Israel, some Arab Gulf nations and local officials are working to “incite strife and chaos” in Iraq.
Al-Khazali, who heads Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, vowed to retaliate for the death of one of his group’s commanders, who was killed recently by protesters in southern Iraq.
“The Americans and the Israelis will pay a price,” he said.
The mostly Shiite militias mobilized in 2014 to battle the Islamic State group but have since grown into a powerful political faction with close ties to Iran. The militias have blamed Israel for several drone attacks in recent months that targeted their posts in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Source: Associated Press – QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and MURTADA FARAJ