Iraq’s government shut off internet access, imposed curfews and deployed elite forces to secure key facilities on Wednesday amid widespread protests aimed at toppling the country’s regime.
Five people were killed and more than 200 were wounded in the largest display of public anger against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's year-old government.
Domestic instability could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Abdul Mahdi's fragile coalition government, sworn in last year as a compromise between rival factions after an inconclusive election.
Counter-terrorism troops were deployed to Baghdad airport where its men fired live ammunition and tear gas at protesters, preventing them from storming the facility.
They were also deployed in the southern city of Nassiriya after police "lost control" when gunfights broke out between protesters and security forces, police sources said.
Curfews were later imposed in Nassiriya and two other southern cities, Amara and Hilla, the police sources told Reuters, as protests that began on Tuesday over unemployment, corruption and poor public services escalated.
Demands on Wednesday included the "fall of the regime" and government and political party buildings set ablaze in two other southern provinces.
The slogan "fall of the regime" was popularised during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
"We are demanding a change, we want the downfall of the whole government," said one protester in Baghdad who declined to identify himself for fear of reprisal.
Any power vacuum in Iraq, should the government be toppled, could prove challenging for the region, given Baghdad's status as an ally of both the United States and Iran, who are locked in a political standoff.
Islamic State militants could also take advantage of any chaos and thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in the country in positions not far from those of Iran-allied Shi'ite militias.
Worst hit was southern Iraq, the heartland of the Shi'ite Muslim majority who, after years of voting along sectarian lines, are turning on their political leaders for failing to deliver jobs and basic services.
Security forces blocked several roads in Baghdad, including a bridge that leads to the fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies.
Oil-producing Iraq has suffered hardships for decades, from rule by Saddam Hussein including years subject to U.N. sanctions, to the 2003 U.S. invasion and civil war it unleashed, and then the battle against Islamic State, which was declared won in 2017.