Iraqi forces kill 6 protesters, retake main Baghdad bridges

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraqi security forces killed six anti-government protesters on Saturday and injured more than 100 others, pushing them back from three burning bridges in central Baghdad, medical and security officials said.

Five of the protesters were killed with live ammunition, while the sixth died after being shot in the head with a tear gas canister. Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations.

The current cycle of anti-government protests and the brutal security crackdown have left more than 250 dead. Mass protests erupted in Baghdad and southern Iraq last month, calling for an overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 US invasion.

The deaths came on Saturday as protests escalated in the afternoon as protesters attempted to reach the three bridges spanning the Tigris to the heavily fortified Green Zone, seat of government. The demonstrators tried to force the passage almost daily.

Protesters were pushed from the Sinak Bridge to nearby Khilani Square, where 35 people were injured, medical officials said. Security forces have also regained control of the nearby Ahrar and Shuhada bridges.

The day before, authorities found a bomb under the Sinak Bridge and carried out a controlled explosion, according to state television.

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In the southern city of Basra, three more protesters were killed overnight, bringing the death toll to eight since Thursday. Clashes with security forces also injured 10 people in other parts of southern Iraq, including the town of Nasiriyah, according to security officials.

Protesters complain about widespread corruption, a lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts, despite Iraq’s vast oil reserves. They rejected the government’s proposals for limited economic reforms and instead called on the country’s political leaders to step down, including Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

“We consider the peaceful protests of our people to be one of the most important events since 2003,” Abdul-Mahdi said on Saturday in a statement pledging to respond to protesters’ demands for far-reaching reforms. He added that electoral reforms would be proposed soon as well as “a major government reshuffle” in response to protests against the sectarian system imposed in 2003, although the statement did not provide further details.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a statement claiming his office was not part of an alleged deal to keep the prime minister in office and end the protests. Al-Sistani’s office said the government should respond to protesters’ demands, adding that the cleric’s name was being used for “political exploitation.”

In al-Sistani’s Friday sermon, delivered by his representative Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, the senior religious official said it was the responsibility of the security forces to ensure that protests were peaceful and avoid using excessive force against protesters.

The prime minister also acknowledged on Saturday that the government was blocking internet access.

Shortly after the press release was issued, the internet on cell phones resumed for half an hour before being cut off again.

Netblocks, a group that monitors internet access around the world, reported a major shutdown by Iraqi authorities on Monday, with use in Baghdad and southern Iraq falling to 19% of normal levels. He said the internet was partially restored on Tuesday morning, but that “some networks are still offline and social media and messaging applications remain blocked or degraded.”

Authorities shut down internet access and blocked social media sites several times during the October protests, but Netblocks said the latest shutdown was the most serious yet.


Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

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