A protester struck in the face by a tear gas cannister died in Baghdad on Friday as Iraqi security forces sought to repel demonstrators protesting at corruption and economic hardship, police and medical sources said.
The authorities have struggled to address protesters’ grievances since sometimes violent unrest erupted in Baghad on Oct. 1, spreading to southern cities. Demonstrators blame corrupt officials and political elites for failing to improve their lives.
At least one protester has died and more than 200 were wounded in the latest disturbances.
The unrest has posed the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi since he took office just one year ago. Despite promising reforms and a broad cabinet reshuffle, the premier has so far struggled to address protesters’ roiling discontent.
Despite the OPEC member country’s vast oil wealth, many Iraqis live in poverty, have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic healthcare or decent education as the country tries to recover from years of conflict and economic hardship.
In an address late on Thursday night, Abdul Mahdi warned that any collapse of government would drag Iraq into further turmoil.
How the government and security forces will handle protests planned for Friday is a litmus test for the stability of the country with political leaders already on edge.
Politicians and parties planned to have a stronger presence on Friday, but their interference continued to be roundly rejected by protesters.
“Our demands are the resignation of the entire government, the dissolution of all political parties, a good life. We came here in a peaceful protest for this,” said Mahmoud al-Shummari, 51, one of thousands who gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Hundreds of people, some of whom had camped overnight in the square, made attempts throughout the morning to march toward the city’s fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies, when they were stopped by security forces.
Top Cleric Urges Calm
The country’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who in recent weeks has criticized the government’s handling of the protests, urged calm on all sides during his sermon on Friday.
Protesters in Baghdad however were nervous about a repeat of violent confrontations which engulfed the capital and southern provinces just two weeks ago, leaving 149 protesters dead and more than 6,000 wounded.
“We got to the Green Zone early this morning,” said 28-year-old protester Hussein al-Ojaili. “But we were worried about going past the Iranian embassy because someone said they have snipers.”
Ojaili said riot forces used stun grenades and fired tear gas and rubber bullets directly at the crowd marching toward the green zone.
One protester was killed after he was struck in the face with a tear gas canister, police and medical sources told Reuters.
The violence further enflamed protesters, who blame a political elite they view as endemically corrupt for failing to improve their lives.
“All we want are four things: jobs; water, electricity, and safety. That’s all we want,” said 16-year-old Ali Mohammed who had covered his face with a tee-shirt to avoid inhaling tear gas.
Mohammed had covered his face with a tee-shirt to avoid inhaling tear gas, as scenes of chaos overwhlemed Tahrir Square. Sirens wailed and tear gas canisters landed in the middle of groups of young protesters who wore Iraqi flags and chanted “with life and blood we defend you Iraq.”
Tuk-tuks carried injured protesters to nearby hospitals for treatment. Medical sources told Reuters at least 227 people had been treated for injuries, most related to tear gas exposure.
A damning report released this week by a government committee set up by Abdul Mahdi concluded the 149 civilians were killed because security forces used excessive force and live fire to quell the protests.