Popular protests multiplied across Iraq on Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators braved live fire and tear gas in rallies that have left nine dead in 24 hours.
The demonstrations led authorities to seal off the Green Zone in central Baghdad and have posed the first major challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago this month and who controversially blamed the violence on aggressors among the protesters.
Since erupting in Baghdad on Tuesday, the protests have spread to other cities in the country’s south, with crowds railing against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment.
On Wednesday, five protesters and a police officer were shot dead in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
They brought the death toll in the protests to nine, including one protester who died in Nasiriyah on Tuesday and two others in a large demonstration in Baghdad that degenerated into violence.
In the capital on Wednesday, riot police attempted to disperse crowds in a half-dozen neighbourhoods by unleashing tear gas and live rounds into the air.
Protesters regrouped and tried to reach the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square for the second day, but police had sealed off the area.
Later on Wednesday, military vehicles and security forces also deployed around the Green Zone, which hosts government buildings and embassies.
Access to the area would be completely denied until further notice, a government source told AFP.
The Green Zone had been inaccessible for most Iraqis since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq but had reopened to the public in June.
It has often been the focal point for public anger, including in 2016 when supporters of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr stormed it and paralysed state institutions.
Some 60 people were wounded across Baghdad on Wednesday, including nine from bullet wounds and the rest from tear gas inhalation, medical sources said.
In addition to Baghdad and Nasiriyah, crowds also gathered in the holy city of Najaf and the flashpoint southern city of Basra, which was rocked by protests last year.
Security forces have used live rounds to break up the Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Najaf protests.
Even after Tuesday’s protest in Baghdad was dispersed, heavy gunfire could be heard well into the night, including in the Sadr City district, where a funeral was held for the protester killed in the capital.
The other demonstrator killed in the capital was wounded Tuesday and succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday.
It was not clear if bullets were fired directly at protesters or into the air.