By John Davison
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces killed at least four anti-government protesters on Thursday as they sought to push them back to their main camp in central Baghdad, police and medics said, but demonstrations resumed at the same spot later in the day.
The violence shattered two days of relative calm in Baghdad after weeks of bloody unrest that has killed more than 300 Iraqis as politicians grapple with the biggest challenge in years to their grip on power.
The mass protests, which began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and spread through southern Iraq, are an eruption of public anger against a ruling elite seen as enriching itself off the state and serving foreign powers, especially Iran, as many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, healthcare or education.
Deadly use of live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly unarmed demonstrators have stoked the unrest. The government has promised limited reform that comes nowhere near protester demands for the removal of an entire political class.
Security forces have in recent days tried to thrust towards and isolate Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the main protest encampment. They shot at protesters in a morning assault nearby on Thursday, a Reuters cameraman said.
Police and medical sources said the clashes killed four, three of whom were struck in the head by tear gas canisters. The fourth died from wounds sustained from a stun grenade explosion. Another 65 were wounded, many from live ammunition.
Protesters held their ground and gathered in the same area later on Thursday as security forces lobbed tear gas over a concrete wall erected to barricade off the demonstrations, a Reuters reporter said.
Dozens choked on the gas and were evacuated by ambulances and tuk tuks, or treated at makeshift medical centres in Tahrir Square.
On another main street protesters used old cabinets, empty petrol drums and steel sheeting to set up their own barricade near Jumhuriya (Republic) Bridge.
“We’re reinforcing in case the security forces make another push later,” said Abbas, a teenager helping to erect the makeshift barrier.
Security forces have tried to tighten the noose around Tahrir Square demonstrations. They took control of many of the surrounding streets earlier in the week.
Security officials have said forces are planning to seal off the square and carry out an arrest campaign to kill the protests’ momentum.
Thursday morning’s clashes appeared to have emboldened some, however. “We’re not going anywhere,” said Hayder Ghareeb, a medical volunteer. “What will they do, kill everyone in the square?”
At Tahrir Square late on Thursday, elated protesters watched their soccer team beat Iran 2-1 in a live match on a giant screen, apparently inspired by the performance. “Iran, Iran, we step on you!” they chanted, setting off fireworks to celebrate.
“This fixture carries more significance than it usually would – we’re protesting against an Iran-backed government and militias, and our team beats Iran. It’s an important result, psychologically,” said one protester, who gave his name only as Hussein.
Iraq’s government, headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, is seen by many as being in thrall to neighbouring Iran, whose allies have dominated Iraqi state institutions since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iran-backed paramilitary groups dominate parliament and government.
The U.S. invasion, a Sunni-Shi’ite Muslim civil war that followed and the brutal rule of Islamic State (IS) over vast tracts of Iraq from 2014-2017 wrecked infrastructure and killed tens of thousands of people.
Despite Iraq’s oil wealth and two years of rare calm after the defeat of IS, the government has failed to fix war damage and stamp out endemic corruption.
Protesters blame officials and a sectarian governance system for the miserable conditions endured by many Iraqis.
They want a new political system and the removal of the entire ruling class. Authorities have instead offered electoral reform, jobs for graduates, handouts and housing for the poor and floated an early election.
Violence also flared anew on Thursday in several locations in southern Iraq.
Late on Wednesday, protesters set fire to local officials’ houses in the town of Gharraf, 25 km (15 miles) north of the southern city of Nassiriya, security sources said.
(Reporting by John Davison and Baghdad newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)