Thousands marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces in cities across Iraq in an outpouring of anger that left 12 people dead – the largest and most violent anti-government protests in the country since political unrest began spreading in the Arab world weeks ago.
In northern Iraqi cities, security forces trying to push back crowds opened fire, killing 10 demonstrators.
In the western Anbar province, two people were shot and killed in a protest.
In Baghdad, demonstrators knocked down blast walls, threw rocks and scuffled with club-wielding troops who chased them down the street.
The protests, billed as a “Day of Rage”, were fuelled by anger over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services from the Shiite-dominated government.
Shiite religious leaders discouraged people from taking part, greatly diminishing the Shiite participation and the overall size of the crowd in a country where such religious edicts hold great sway.
In Baghdad’s Sunni enclave of Azamiyah, one resident said people there did not want to attend because they feared being labelled Saddamists.
“The government has already convicted anyone who takes part in the demonstrations by accusing them of terrorism,” said 41-year-old Ammar al-Azami.
Khalil Ibrahim, 44, one of about 3,000 protesters in central Baghdad, railed against a government that locks itself in the Green Zone, home to the parliament and the US Embassy, and is viewed by most of its citizens as more interested in personal gain than public service. “We want a good life like human beings, not like animals,” Ibrahim said.
The center of Baghdad was virtually locked down, with soldiers searching protesters entering Liberation Square and closing off the plaza and side streets with razor wire. The heavy security presence reflected the official concerns that demonstrations here could gain traction as they did in Egypt and Tunisia, then spiral out of control.