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Three more killed as anti-government protests escalate in Baghdad

The deaths come after two more protesters were killed on Tuesday.

(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Associated Press

Three protesters have been killed and 82 wounded amid gunfire and clashes in Baghdad, raising the number of overall deaths in two days of protests to five, Iraqi officials said.

A security official and a medical official said the deaths occurred in the Tayyaran and al-Khilani squares in central Baghdad when security forces opened fire at protesters.

The deaths come after two more protesters were killed on Tuesday.

Security forces fired live ammunition and used tear gas on Wednesday to disperse demonstrators in the capital, after violent confrontations between protesters and police a day earlier, officials said.

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Iraqi security forces in Baghdad (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Protests on Tuesday had left two dead – one in Baghdad and another in the city of Nasiriyah – and more than 200 wounded.

On Wednesday, hundreds of heavily armed security forces and riot police deployed on Baghdad streets, blocking all junctions leading to a major central square to prevent larger protests.

Parked armoured personnel carriers and SUVs stood guard and by mid-afternoon, residents said authorities had shut down social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

Despite the massive security dragnet, groups of protesters continued to take to the streets, some of them calling for toppling the government.

Thick black smoke hung over the city as demonstrators set fire to tyres and bins, while bursts of gunfire could be heard intermittently.

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Violence in Tahrir Square (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

The confrontations were some of the worst between protesters and security forces in Baghdad, signalling that the war-weary country could be facing a new round of political instability.

The protests, organised on social media, started in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, initially driven by economy woes.

They began peacefully, calling for an end to corruption, improved basic services and more jobs, but they soon turned violent after security forces fought back at demonstrators with water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition.

A few dozen protesters tried to reach Tahrir Square again on Wednesday morning but were met with scores of riot police who formed a human barrier and soldiers who blocked roads, sometimes with barbed wire.

Security forces again fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air to disperse the protesters, chasing them away, according to officials.

The protests are the most serious challenge to prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s nearly year-old government. The premier is holding a national security emergency meeting, his office said.

In Zaafaraniya, south east of Baghdad, at least five people were treated for breathing difficulties after police used tear gas to break up a small protest.

Police also used tear gas in al-Shaab, north of the Iraqi capital.

Security officials said five people were arrested in al-Shaab and three in Zaafaraniya.

The protests appear to be spontaneous and without political leadership, organised by people on social media against corruption and lack of basic services, such as electricity and water.

Dozens of university graduates unable to find jobs in the corruption-plagued but oil-rich country also joined the rallies. Politicians denounced the violence and at least one, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called for an investigation.

PA

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