BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces shot dead at least 13 protesters in the past 24 hours, abandoning weeks of comparative restraint to unleash live gunfire in a bid to crush demonstrations against the political parties that control the government.
After eight people were killed during the day on Monday, security forces shot dead at least five others overnight or early on Tuesday, including one killed with live fire at a funeral procession for another who had died hours earlier.
More than 260 Iraqis have been killed in demonstrations since the start of October against a government they see as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests, above all Iran.
Most of those deaths took place during the first week of the demonstrations, when snipers shot on crowds from Baghdad rooftops. But after the government appeared to have curbed the use of some deadly tactics, the protests swelled rapidly over the past ten days.
The new violence began a day after Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi appealed to protesters to suspend their movement, which he said had achieved its goals and was hurting the economy.
He has said he is willing to resign if politicians agree on a replacement, and has promised a number of reforms. But protesters say that is not enough and the entire political class needs to go.
Since putting down an insurgency by Daesh in 2017, Iraq has enjoyed two years of comparative stability. But despite its oil wealth, many people live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education.
Protesters blame a political system that shares power among sectarian parties, making corruption entrenched. Abdul-Mahdi, in power for a year, enjoys the support of powerful Iran-backed political parties allied to armed militia.
A government report said nearly 150 people were killed in the first week of the unrest in early October, 70 percent from bullets to the head. Since then, security forces mainly used tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades to repel protesters.
Though these tactics also caused fatalities, the protests grew far larger as word got out that they were safer, with families, women, and elderly people joining demonstrations by “revolutionary” youth, especially in Baghdad.
By the end of last week tens of thousands of people were turning out daily for by far the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But Monday’s violence suggested a return to the earlier tactics, including firing live rounds into crowds.
At least six protesters were killed on Monday in the capital Baghdad as security forces used live rounds. One protester was also killed in Shatra, a town in the south, on Monday.
Overnight, security forces killed two more people and wounded 12 in Shatra, security and medical sources said. Hospital sources said the protesters died from bullet wounds to the head. The protesters had tried to attack the house of a senior government official, security sources said.
Separately, at least two protesters were killed and dozens more wounded when security forces opened fire on protesters camped out at the entrance to the main Gulf port of Umm Qasr.
A sit-in there has halted operations at the port since last Wednesday. The port handles the vast bulk of imports for a population that relies on food from abroad.
Local security officials imposed a curfew around 10PM on Monday night in an initial attempt to disperse the crowd, saying they would use force to disperse them if necessary.
Clashes continued into Tuesday morning, with a person killed during the funeral procession for one of the protesters killed overnight. Security forces responded with live rounds after residents, angry at the earlier use of force, threw stones at them near the funeral procession.