♦ 19 killed as protesters defy curfew, more than 1000 wounded
♦ Anger over graft, unemployment spread to country’s south
♦ Approximately 75 percent of Iraqis offline
Several thousand Iraqi protesters faced off against security forces in central Baghdad on Thursday, the third day of mass rallies that have left 19 dead as they engulf the country’s south.
Defying a curfew in place since dawn, they arrived by truckfuls at the capital’s oil and industry ministry to protest against corruption, unemployment and poor services.
The apparently leaderless movement has posed the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who has been in power for less than a year.
The embattled premier ordered a ban on all movement in Baghdad starting at 5:00 am (0200 GMT) Thursday, but it was almost immediately defied by small groups of protesters.
The crowds swelled in the afternoon and pledged to march to the capital’s emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
Most demonstrators carried the Iraqi tricolour while others brandished flags bearing the name of Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s (pbuh) grandson and a revered figure in Shia Islam, an AFP photographer said.
Riot police and army troops linked arms around ministries and other government buildings, firing tear gas and live rounds into the air in a bid to push the crowds back.
“We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Iraq!” demonstators chanted.
The protests began Tuesday in Baghdad but have since spread across the mainly Shia south, including the provinces of Dhi Qar, Missan, Najaf, Basra, Wasit and Babylon.
Several cities have imposed curfews, but protesters flooded the streets regardless.
The Kurdish northern regions and Sunni western provinces, meanwhile, have remained relatively calm.
Approximately 75 percent of Iraq is “offline” after major network operators “intentionally restricted” access, according to cybersecurity monitor NetBlocks.
The three days of demonstrations have left 19 people dead including one police officer, a toll confirmed by Iraq’s Human Rights Commission. More than 1,000 protesters and security personnel have been wounded.
The grievances echo those of mass demonstrations in Iraq’s south a little over a year ago which were prompted by a severe water shortage that caused a widespread health crisis. Since then, southern provinces have accused the central government of failing to address profound infrastructural gaps, chief among them is youth unemployment.
Abdel Mahdi came to power in October 2018 with a promise to reform inefficient institutions, eradicate corruption and fight unemployment.
In particular, anger has boiled over at the staggering level of youth unemployment, which stands at around 25 percent or double the overall rate, says the World Bank.