Death toll rises to 42 in Iraq as PM urges protesters to go home

TheIraqi protesters who took to the streets on Thursday for the third time this week despite a curfew restricting movement in the capital and several southern cities were faced by fire from security forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said increased security measures are a necessary ‘bitter medicine’ to restore calm to Iraq as security forces continue to fire at protesters.

Iraqi officials say a further nine people have been killed in a southern city where police have clashed with anti-government protesters, bringing this week’s death toll to 42. Since Tuesday, security forces have fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse protesters who are holding demonstrations against corruption, unemployment and poor public services.

Protesters gathered in Baghdad for a fourth day on Friday and were met by security forces who opened fire, an AFP correspondent reported. The security forces fired directly at the protesters, not in the air, the correspondent said.

In a bid to quell the unrest, Iraq’s premier on Friday sent a message to the anti-government protesters, saying their “legitimate demands” have been heard. Speaking in a televised address, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi urged them to go home, comparing security measures imposed in the wake of this week’s violence, including a curfew, to “bitter medicine” that needs to be swallowed.

Authorities have also cut internet access in much of Iraq since late on Wednesday, in a desperate move to curb the rallies. The rallies erupted spontaneously, mostly spurred by youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country

“We will not make empty promises … or promise what we cannot achieve,” Abdel Mahdi said in his televised speech, broadcast at 2:30 a.m. He said there is “no magic solution” to Iraq’s problems but pledged to work on laws granting poor families a basic income, provide alternative housing to violators and fight corruption.

“The security measures we are taking, including temporary curfew, are difficult choices. But like bitter medicine, they are inevitable,” he said. “We have to return life to normal in all provinces and respect the law.” It was not immediately clear what the protesters’ response to Abdel Mahdi’s statements will be.

The unrest is the most serious challenge for his year-old government, which also has been caught in the middle of increasing US-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of US troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran. The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shia areas of southern Iraq, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.

Thursday’s demonstrations complaining of widespread unemployment, corruption and poor public services coincided with the 87th anniversary of Iraq’s Independence Day. Despite an indefinite curfew imposed earlier on Thursday by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the target of much of the protesters’ ire, a few dozen demonstrators returned to the capital’s central Tahrir Square in the morning. Riot police encircled the protesters, then pushed them into side streets and fired into the air, an AFP photographer reported.

Abdul-Mahdi ordered the ban on movement across the capital, as well as curfews in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Najaf, in a bid to stem the growing protests. Voicing a range of grievances against Abdul-Mahdi’s government which took office a little under a year ago, protesters have been heard calling for his resignation in videos distributed on social media.

Spontaneous protests

Thousands took to the streets on Tuesday in protests described by analysts as a rare display of spontaneous action, rather than having been called for by a political faction.

Former MP Shorouq al-Abaiji told The New Arab’s Arabic service that the protesters were the “natural result of the failure of the Iraqi political system to achieve the most basic demands of the people”.

Observers say that, despite fewer protesters turning out on Wednesday amid an increased security presence, the violent crackdown on dissent is likely to increase rage against the government and spur on further demonstrations.

Prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has also urged a “general strike”, a call his thousands of followers will likely take up.

Tensions have also been exacerbated by a near-total internet shutdown.

While internet access was intermittent on Wednesday, with internet monitor NetBlocks reporting systematic blocks to social media networks including Twitter and Facebook, AFP reported on Thursday that internet access was near impossible.

At least one overnight explosion hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, where some ministries and embassies are located.

The apparent attack came just hours after security sources sealed off the Green Zone “until further notice”, fearing furious protesters could swarm state buildings or foreign missions.

More than 400 people have been wounded so far in the demonstrations, according to health officials.

‘De-escalation needed’

The United Nations’ top official in Iraq met with some protesters in Baghdad on Wednesday night to call for “direct dialogue” between them and government officials.

“The ability to preserve the right to protest is a sign of political and democratic maturity. Moreover, the use of force only fuels the anger,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said in a statement. “De-escalation is urgently needed.”

The violence by security forces has drawn a slew of criticism from Iraqi leaders including President Barham Saleh, and parliament has demanded and investigation.

The violence drew a slew of criticism from Iraqi leaders including President Barham Saleh, and has demanded an investigation into the incidents.

But others in the government, including Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, have blamed the violence on “infiltrators” and “aggressors”.

The fresh protest movement follows months of simmering frustrations over rampant power cuts, water shortages and state corruption.

The demonstrators appear to be overwhelmingly young, andseem to have been pushed to the streets by staggering rates of youth unemployment, which is around 25 percent or double the adult rate according to the World Bank.

“We want jobs and better public services. We’ve been demanding them for years and the government has never responded,” said Abdallah Walid, a 27-year-old protester.

Similar demonstrations engulfed Basra last summer and effectively ended former premier Haider al-Abadi’s chances at a second term.