More than 60 people dead as Iraq protests take new violent turn

PTI

Basra: Iraqi security forces fire tear gas while anti-government protesters try to break into the provincial council building during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. After a week of violence in the capital and the country's southern provinces, a government-appointed inquiry into the protests determined that security forces had used excessive force and recommended the firing of security chiefs in Baghdad and the south. (PTI Photo)

Basra: Iraqi security forces fire tear gas while anti-government protesters try to break into the provincial council building during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (PTI Photo)

More than 60 people have died in renewed anti-government protests across Iraq, officials said Saturday, with clashes breaking out as demonstrators turned their fury against government and paramilitary offices.

The death toll from protests this month has soared to 220, including dozens killed since Friday as they torched government buildings or offices belonging to factions of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force.

The demonstrations first erupted on October 1, with protesters railing against government corruption and unemployment, while a second wave broke out late Thursday.

The latest round of demonstrations has been notably violent, with 63 people killed and more than 2,000 wounded over just two days, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.

Three protesters were killed in the capital Baghdad on Saturday, with medics and officials reporting trauma wounds sustained by tear gas canisters lobbed at demonstrators.

But the majority of victims have been in the country’s Shiite-majority south, where protesters torched dozens of provincial government buildings, party offices and Hashed centres.

On Saturday, three people were shot dead while setting fire to a local official’s home in the southern province of Dhi Qar, a police source told AFP.

The previous night, 12 protesters died in Diwaniyah while setting fire to the headquarters of the powerful Badr organisation.

Top Hashed commanders have threatened “revenge” after their offices were attacked, and denounced those they said aimed at sowing “discord and chaos” in the country.

In a bid to contain the violence, security forces announced curfews across most of Iraq’s southern provinces — but brief protests still took place in Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Babylon and Najaf.

In the southern port city of Basra, however, protesters failed to come out in large numbers after security forces strictly enforced a curfew.

Protesters gathered in Baghdad’s emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Saturday morning despite efforts by riot police to clear them with tear gas.

Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC’s second-highest producer — but one in five people live below the poverty line and youth unemployment stands at 25 per cent, according to the World Bank.

About 60 per cent of Iraq’s 40-million-strong population is under the age of 25.

The staggering rates of joblessness and graft allegations have been at the root of protesters’ anger, which the government has struggled to quell.

Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has proposed a laundry list of reforms, including hiring drives, increased pensions and a cabinet reshuffle.

New education and health ministers were approved by parliament in a session earlier this month, the only time it was able to meet since protests began.

But a scheduled meeting of parliament on Saturday to discuss the renewed protests failed to take place due to a lack of quorum.

Protesters so far have seemed unimpressed by the government’s efforts.

PTI