BAGHDAD (AP) — At least three anti-government protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces in southern Iraq, officials said Tuesday as authorities tried to reopen the country’s main port, which had been blocked by demonstrators for three days.
Security and medical officials said a protester was killed and eight more were wounded in Umm Qasr, a key oil terminal on the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, a semi-official agency, said two people were killed and 23 wounded in clashes in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, said security forces in Umm Qasr were firing live ammunition and tear gas, and that protesters have seized an armored vehicle.
Iraq has seen massive anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad and across the mostly Shia south since Oct. 25. The protests are calling for an overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, accusing the government and major political parties of corruption and incompetence.
Security forces have killed at least 267 protesters since early October during two major waves of protests. In southern Iraq, protesters have ransacked and torched the offices of political parties linked to Iran, and on Sunday night they attacked the Iranian Consulate in the Shia holy city of Karbala.
In Baghdad, protesters crossed a bridge over the Tigris River on Monday and clashed with security forces near the headquarters of state-run TV and the prime minister’s office. At least five protesters and a member of the security forces were killed and scores were wounded. The protesters set tires and dumpsters ablaze within 500 meters (yards) of the prime minister’s office, sending huge clouds of black smoke into the sky.
Netblocks, a group that monitors worldwide internet access, reported a major shutdown by Iraqi authorities overnight, with usage in Baghdad and southern Iraq dropping to 19% of normal levels. It said the internet was partially restored early on Tuesday, but that “some networks are still offline and social media and messaging apps remain blocked or degraded.”
Authorities shut down internet access and blocked social media sites on a number of occasions during an earlier wave of protests in October, but Netblocks said the latest shutdown was the most severe yet.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has expressed support for the protesters’ demands and condemned violence on all sides while resisting calls to step down. He has called on the protesters to reopen roads so that life can return to normal, saying the disruptions caused by the protests are costing the country billions of dollars.
He met with senior judicial and security officials at the Federal Police Headquarters late Monday to discuss ways to restore stability while preserving the right to protest and to protect private property, according to a government statement.
The British Embassy meanwhile called on Iraq’s government to ensure security forces “protect protesters and act appropriately.” It said on its Facebook page: “Peaceful protest is the right of the Iraqi people. Violence against them is unacceptable.”
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iraq’s government should listen to the protesters’ “legitimate demands.”
Iraq holds regular elections, but its politics are dominated by Shiite Islamist parties, many with close ties to Iran. The protesters, who mainly come from the Shiite majority, say their leaders have enriched themselves while letting the economy and infrastructure crumble.
They complain of high unemployment and poor public services. Despite Iraq having the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves, Baghdad and other cities still suffer frequent power cuts and the tap water in many areas is undrinkable.
Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Beirut contributed to this report.
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Photo: A protester holds an Iraqi flag while anti-government protests set fire while security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas near the state-run TV in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)