Thousands of people have marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces in cities across Iraq in the country’s largest and most violent anti-government protests since political unrest began spreading in the Arab world several weeks ago.
In two northern Iraqi cities, security forces trying to push back crowds opened fire, killing six demonstrators. In Baghdad, demonstrators knocked down blast walls, threw rocks and scuffled with club-wielding troops.
The protests, billed as a “Day of Rage”, were fuelled by anger over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services.
“We want a good life like human beings, not like animals,” said Khalil Ibrahim, 44, one of about 3,000 protesters in Baghdad.
Like many Iraqis, he railed against a government that locks itself in the highly fortified 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.
The centre of Baghdad was virtually locked down on Friday, with soldiers searching protesters entering Liberation Square and closing off the plaza and side streets with razor wire. The heavy security presence reflected the concern of Iraqi officials that demonstrations could gain traction as they did in Egypt and Tunisia, then spiral out of control.
Iraqi army helicopters buzzed overhead, while Humvees and trucks took up posts throughout the square, where flag-waving demonstrators shouted “No to unemployment,” and “No to the liar al-Maliki,” referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The protests stretched from the northern city of Mosul to the southern city of Basra, reflecting the widespread anger many Iraqis feel at the government’s seeming inability to improve their lives.
A crowd of angry marchers in the northern city of Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, tried to break into the city’s municipal building, said the head of the local city council, Ali Hussein Salih. Security forces trying to block the crow opened fire, killing three demonstrators and wounding 15, local officials said. The Iraqi Army was eventually called in to restore order.
In Mosul, also in northern Iraq, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the provincial council building, demanding jobs and better services, when guards opened fire, according to a police official. A police and hospital official said three protesters were killed and 15 people wounded.