Nearly 50 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 months has climbed to 205, including dozens who were killed as they torched government buildings or offices belonging to factions of Hashed al-Shaabi force over the past two days.
The demonstrations first erupted on October 1, with protesters railing against government corruption and unemployment, while a second wave broke out late Thursday.
This latest round of demonstrations has been notably violent, with 48 people killed in as many hours.
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 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, 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 have announced curfews across most of Iraq’s southern provinces — but brief protests nevertheless took place in Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Babylon and Najaf.
In the southern port city of Basra, protesters failed to come out in large numbers after security forces strictly enforced a curfew.
– Fears of ‘armed spoilers’ –
The Hashed was founded in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group but its factions have since been ordered to incorporate into the state security services.
“Public anger is directed at them in addition to governorate councils, for they were the obvious face of ‘the regime’,” wrote Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But the attacks could also hint at political rivalries between the Hashed and populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has thrown his weight behind the demonstrations.
“The Sadrists, especially in their traditional strongholds such as Missan, saw this an opportunity to act against competing militias,” such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr, and Kataeb Hezbollah, Hasan said on Twitter.
The United Nations on Saturday said it was “tragic” to see renewed violence but also warned against “armed spoilers”.
“Armed entities sabotaging the peaceful demonstrations, eroding the government’s credibility and ability to act, cannot be tolerated,” said the UN top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
Protesters gathered in Baghdad’s emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Saturday morning despite efforts by riot police to clear them with tear gas.
“It’s enough — theft, looting, gangs, mafias, deep state, whatever. Get out! Let us see a (functioning) state,” said one protester, referring to perceived cronyism and corruption in the country.
“We don’t want anything, just let us live,” he added as puffs of smoke from tear gas rose behind him.