BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces fired live bullets and tear gas at protesters in Baghdad on Thursday, despite a curfew in the Iraqi capital amid deadly violence gripping the country and anti-government protests that killed 19 people this week.
In a desperate attempt to quell the protests, spurred in part the deteriorating economy and lack of jobs and services, authorities have cut Internet access across much of Iraq.
Before dawn, explosions were heard inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government offices and foreign embassies. The U.S.-led coalition said an investigation is underway, and that no coalition forces or assets were hit.
At least 19 people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded since the violence and clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstrators erupted on Tuesday.
Ten people were killed late Wednesday in the southern cities of Nasriyah and Amara. The dead were protesters and one policeman, according to security officials.
The protests, concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, are mostly spontaneous, without political leadership, staged by disenchanted youth demanding jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to Iraq’s endemic corruption.
They have organized the protests on social media and have gradually escalated their demands and now want the government to resign. No political party so far has joined the campaign.
The demonstrations and unrest are the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old government, which has been caught in the middle of U.S.-Iran tensions in the Middle East. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
The curfew was announced early Thursday after a meeting of Iraq’s top leaders to discuss the protests that have engulfed the country.
Authorities say the curfew is meant to “protect general peace” and protect protesters from “infiltrators” who commit attacks against security forces and public property. It excludes travelers to and from the Baghdad airport; Iraqi Airways said flights were operating as scheduled.
Baghdad’s main streets were largely deserted Thursday morning. But in central Tahrir Square, hundreds of young protesters gathered, and police fired tear gas canisters every now and then.
Iraqi army vehicles were moving in the streets of the capital and in some areas the army blocked side roads with barbed wire.
“Whether there is curfew or not we are going to continue,” shouted one protester in Tahrir Square.
When the demonstrators tried to reach a bridge that leads to the Green Zone on Thursday morning, Iraqi security forces shot above the crowd with automatic rifles and fired tear gas, according to an Associated Press cameraman at the scene.
NetBlocks, which monitors cybersecurity and internet governance, reported that Internet access was cut across much of Iraq and social and messaging apps blocked amid the growing unrest.
The U.S.-led coalition, which has a presence on the ground in Iraq, issued a statement that it is monitoring the protests and that “we call on all sides to reduce tensions and reject violence.”
Coalition spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III said that explosions were heard in the Green Zone before dawn Thursday. He said Iraqi forces were investigating and that no coalition facility was struck. “Coalition troops always reserve the right to defend ourselves; attacks on our personnel will not be tolerated,” he said.
An Iraqi security official said two mortar shells hit the Green Zone, falling on open space and not causing any casualties. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Dozens of university graduates unable to find jobs in the corruption-plagued but oil-rich country have joined the rallies. Politicians denounced the violence and at least one, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called for an investigation.
Earlier Wednesday, at least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in clashes that spread across Iraq despite a massive security dragnet mounted by the government in an effort to quash the economically driven protests. On Tuesday, protests left two dead — one in Baghdad and another in the city of Nasiriyah — and more than 200 wounded.
Curfews were also announced in some of the southern provinces but they were not being observed.
In the southern city of Basra, unknown assailants shot and killed an Iraqi activist, Hussein Adel Madani and his wife. Security officials said masked gunmen stormed the house early Thursday and killed the cartoonist and his wife while their 2-year-old daughter, Zahra, was not harmed.
The well-known activists had been taking part in protests in the city Wednesday night.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for killing them.