Students in Iraq have joined anti-government protests in Baghdad as thousands stood fast in the capital’s central Tahrir Square, defying a bloody crackdown that killed scores over the weekend and an overnight raid by security forces seeking to disperse them.
Several schools and universities decided to shut their doors, activists said on Sunday, with some protesting on campus and others heading towards the main gathering spaces for rallies.
Young men had erected barricades on a bridge leading to the capital’s fortified Green Zone against security forces who continued to lob tear gas canisters towards them.
Medical and security sources said 77 people were wounded.
At least 74 Iraqis were killed on Friday and Saturday and hundreds wounded as demonstrators clashed with security forces and militia groups in the second wave of this month’s protests against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government.
The protests are a continuation of the economically driven demonstrations that began in early October and turned deadly as security forces began cracking down and using live ammunition.
About 231 people have been killed in October.
The ongoing turmoil has broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq, which in recent years has endured an invasion by the United States and protracted fighting, including against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.
The demonstrations have posed the biggest challenge yet to the year-old government of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi, who has pledged to address demonstrators’ grievances by reshuffling his cabinet and delivering a package of reforms.
The moves have done little to quell the demonstrators, however, whose ire is focused not just on Mahdi’s administration but also Iraq’s wider political establishment, which they say has failed to improve the lives of the country’s citizens.
Many view the political elite as subservient to one or other of Iraq’s two main allies, the US and Iran – powers they believe are more concerned with wielding regional influence than ordinary Iraqis’ needs.
“I ask you Abdul Mahdi, it’s been 16 years and you’ve done nothing. We’re going from bad to worse,” Ma’azir Yas, who had wrapped herself in an Iraqi flag, told Reuters news agency. “This protest is peaceful and the young men only ask for their rights: jobs and services.”
Nearly three-fifths of Iraq’s 40 million people live on less than six dollars a day, World Bank figures show, despite the country housing the world’s fifth-largest proven reserves of oil.
Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service said on Sunday it had deployed in the streets of Baghdad to protect important state buildings “from undisciplined elements”.
Renewed protests also flooded the streets of Najaf, Hilla, Karbala and Diwaniyah in the south.
In the oil-rich port city of Basra, police enforced a strict curfew and said it arrested “saboteurs” who had infiltrated the protesters.
On Sunday, Iraqi President Barham Saleh met the United Nations’ top representative in the country Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert to discuss electoral reform and amendments to the constitution, which dates back to 2005.
Abdel Mahdi has also proposed a laundry list of reforms including hiring drives, increased pensions and promises to root out corruption.
Beyond the street, Abdel Mahdi also faces new pressure from parliament, with four MPs resigning and the largest bloc holding an open-ended sit-in since Saturday night.
Parliament’s only two Communist MPs and two legislators linked to former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced they were stepping down late on Sunday.
“We are resigning because of the protests and the way they were repressed,” Communist legislator Raed Fahmy told AFP news agency.
The Iraqi Communist Party had allied with Moqtada al-Sadr in the 2018 elections to form Saeroon, which on Saturday began a sit-in to back protests.
The move has left Abdel Mahdi more squeezed than ever, as Saeroon was one of the two main sponsors of his government.