Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Iraq to express outrage over government corruption and poor public services.
While the rallies began peacefully on Tuesday, the situation has grown increasingly chaotic — at least 43 people have died as a result of clashes between security forces and protesters.
The protests don’t appear to be tied to any particular group and have largely been organized on social media. While concentrated in Baghdad, other protests have unfolded in predominately Shiite Muslim cities and regions of southern Iraq.
The deadly civil unrest is considered the biggest political challenge for Adel Abdul Mahdi, who became prime minister one year ago.
Both the United States and the United Nations have expressed concern about the growing violence and have urged authorities to act with restraint, but so far, there is no sign of calm.
Why are people protesting?
The mostly young protesters are fed up. They are demanding jobs and improved services, like electricity and water, and placing the blame on politicians for failing to follow through on promised reforms to the economy.
Despite the country’s oil wealth, a vast majority of the population is struggling with poor conditions, which they say are only worsening.
It’s been two years since the defeat of the Islamic State group, but after decades of war, foreign sanctions and invasions, the infrastructure in Iraq has decayed.
Many cities damaged by war have yet to be rebuilt, and Iraqis say government corruption has slowed or blocked improvements.
University graduates and unemployed youth, who are at the heart of the demonstrations, say they are suffering because of government inaction. They say the protests are their way of expressing their disappointment and disenfranchisement by political powers.
Since the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign, corruption has persisted under the rule of sectarian political parties.
Mohammed Kadhim, a 27-year-old resident of Baghdad, told the Associated Press he believes the current government is full of “empty promises and lies.”
In what could be seen as an influential move, Iraq’s most spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, criticized “the government and political sides” on Friday for not fulfilling “the demands of the people” to fight corruption. Al-Sistani called on the government to “carry out its duty” to address the protesters’ concerns and calm the crisis.
“Lawmakers hold the biggest responsibility for what is happening,” he said.
He went on to urge security forces and protesters not to use violence.
Why are people dying?
Since the rallies began on Tuesday, security forces have turned to live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protesters.
An around-the-clock curfew was implemented in Baghdad and several other cities, but it has consistently been defied by thousands of demonstrators.
While the violence is concentrated in Baghdad, particularly in and around Tahrir Square, deaths have been reported in the southern cities of Amara, Diwaniya, Hilla and Nassiriya.
In some towns, police have reported that protesters fired live rounds and tear gas at them. In central Baghdad on Friday, police snipers took positions on rooftops and fired shots at protesters, hitting multiple people.
“The bullets do not scare us,” one protester in the capital told Reuters. “They do not scare Iraqis. This will all come down over their heads.”
At this point, 43 protesters have been killed, according to Reuters, but hundreds more have been wounded. Police officers are also reportedly among the dead.
What has the government said and done?
Abdul Mahdi has expressed regret for the violence and promised better employment opportunities for Iraqis.
On Facebook, he said: “It saddens me and breaks our hearts the injuries among the protesters, our sons, and the security forces and the destruction and looting of public and private properties.”
Last year, under the previous government, similar promises to improve public services were made.
In a televised address to the country, Abdul Mahdi said that he has heard the protesters’ “legitimate demands” and promised he would respond to them but urged demonstrators to go home.
There is no “magic solution” to the country’s governance problems, he said. He has vowed to try and pass a law to better support low-income families and pushed lawmakers for support to reshuffle cabinet posts.
However, he went on to describe the security measures used against protesters, including the curfew, as a “bitter medicine” that needs to be swallowed.
Iraqi authorities cut off internet access in much of the affected areas mid-week to try and control the upheaval. Security forces have also blocked major roads and bridges.
What happens next?
Since the protests don’t appear to be linked to a political group or party, it’s possible the government could struggle to control the situation.
There have been no official political resignations or reshuffles, as Abdul Mahdi has asked for, as of yet.
Protesters have vowed to continue their fight until they see tangible change and action.
“We’ll keep going until the government fails,” Ali, a 22-year-old unemployed university graduate, told AFP.
“I’ve got nothing but 250 lira (C$0.27) in my pocket while government officials have millions.”
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press
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