Curfew, More Shooting In Baghdad After 2 Days Of Violence

Anti-government protesters wave flags during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Iraqi officials said several protesters have been killed Wednesday and scores injured amid gunfire and clashes in Baghdad. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces fired live bullets into the air and used tear gas against a few hundred protesters in central Baghdad on Thursday, hours after a curfew was announced in the Iraqi capital on the heels of two days of deadly violence that gripped the country amid anti-government protests.

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In a desperate attempt to quell the protests, which were in part spurred by woes over Iraq’s deteriorating economy and lack of jobs and services, authorities have cut Internet access across much of the country.

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, adding that no coalition forces or assets were hit.

So far, at least nine people have been reported killed and hundreds have been wounded since the violence and clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstrators first erupted on Tuesday.

The protests, concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq are mostly spontaneous, without political leadership, and staged by disenchanted youth demanding jobs, improved services, such as electricity and water, and an end to Iraq’s endemic corruption. They have organized their protests on social media and have gradually escalated their demands and now want the government to resign. No political party has so far joined the campaign.

The protests 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 following a meeting of Iraq’s top leaders to discuss anti-government protests that have engulfed the country.

Authorities say the curfew is meant to “protect general peace” and protect protesters from “infiltrators” who committed attacks against security forces and public property. It excludes travelers to and from the Baghdad airport and Iraqi Airways said flights were operating as scheduled.

Baghdad streets were largely deserted Thursday morning. In central Tahrir Square, hundreds of young protesters were gathered, and police fired tear gas canisters every now and then.

“Whether there is curfew or not we are going to continue,” shouted one protester in Tahrir Square.

When the demonstrators tried to reach a nearby bridge that leads to the Green Zone Thursday morning, Iraqi security forces started shooting above the crowd from automatic rifles and also 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 off 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 saying it is monitoring the protests and added that “we call on all sides to reduce tensions and reject violence” as the loss of life and injuries among civilians and Iraqi security forces was deeply concerning.

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 in line with regulations.

Dozens of university graduates unable to find jobs in the corruption-plagued but oil-rich country have also joined the rallies. Politicians denounced the violence and at least one, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called for an investigation.

On 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 had left two dead _ one in Baghdad and another in the city of Nasiriyah _ and over 200 wounded.

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