By John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Clashes between police and protesters killed 11 people in Baghdad on Saturday in a new flare-up of anti-government unrest, as security forces deployed in their hundreds to keep demonstrations away from central squares in the Iraqi capital.
Police and medical sources reported the casualties after days of violence around anti-government protests, bringing the toll in Baghdad and other cities this week to at least 88.
The new clashes shattered a day of relative calm after authorities lifted a curfew and traffic moved normally in the centre of the city. One square where protesters had gathered in their hundreds in previous days was packed with hundreds of policemen and other security personnel.
The unrest is the deadliest Iraq has seen since the declared defeat of Islamic State in 2017 and has shaken Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s year-old government.
The government has responded to demands for jobs, better services and an end to endemic corruption with vague reform promises that are unlikely to placate Iraqis.
Opposition to the government among parliamentary groupings who have begun boycotting legislative meetings is gathering pace, putting pressure on Abdul Mahdi and his cabinet to step down.
But powerful political parties which have dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein have not yet indicated they are willing to relinquish the institutions they control.
In eastern Baghdad on Friday and Saturday, police snipers shot at demonstrators and several people were wounded, Reuters reporters said.
Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights put the toll at 94 dead since protests broke out on Tuesday. Reuters could not verify its figures. Security services said the violence killed 8 members of the security forces and wounded more than 1,000, state television reported.
In the southern city of Nassiriya, where at least 18 people were killed during the week, police fired live rounds at demonstrators, and protesters torched the headquarters of several political parties in the city, police said. These included the headquarters of the powerful Dawa party that dominated Iraq’s government from 2003 until 2018 elections.
Violence also broke out again in Diwaniya, another city south of Baghdad killing at least one person, police said.
Iraqi state television meanwhile broadcast live footage of a meeting between the parliament speaker and what it said were protest leaders. The speaker on Friday proposed improving public housing for the poor and job opportunities for young people, as well as holding those who had killed protesters to account.
ANGER AT GRAFT, LACK OF SERVICES
Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih said they would seek to meet the demands, state TV said, but gave no details how exactly they would respond.
The High Commission for Human Rights said security forces had detained hundreds of people for demonstrating but then let most of them go. It said more than 3,000 people had been wounded in days of violence.
The scale of the unrest appeared to take authorities by surprise. The last major unrest took place mainly in the southern city of Basra last year, killing nearly 30 people, but demonstrations since then had been small.
Iraqis fear violence could escalate.
Powerful parties including Iran-backed groups that have links with paramilitary forces might decide that a harsh crackdown would deter protesters, analysts say.
“That’s a lesson they learned from Basra in 2018 because protests stopped after 20 or so people were killed … there’s a logic that if you kill enough people they’ll quiet down,” said Renad Mansour, research fellow at Chatham House.
Police snipers shot at protesters on Friday, Reuters reporters said, escalating violent tactics used by the security forces that have included live fire, tear gas and water cannons.
The security forces have accused gunmen of hiding among demonstrators to shoot at police. Several policeman have died.
The protests erupted on Tuesday in Baghdad and quickly spread to other Iraqi cities, mainly in the south.
Powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a mass popular following and controls a large chunk of parliament, demanded on Friday that the government resign and snap elections be held. At least one other major parliamentary grouping allied itself with Sadr against the government.
Parliament was set to meet on Saturday to discuss protesters’ demands. Sadr’s bloc has said it will boycott the session and support further protest.
“They’ll continue and get bigger as long as the government doesn’t retreat,” said Jassim al-Hilfi, a lawmaker from the Sadr-led Saeroon bloc.
(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, Aref Mohammed, Maher Nazih; Editing by Frances Kerry, William Maclean)