BAGHDAD – Iraqi security forces trying to disperse crowds of demonstrators in northern Iraq killed 5 people Friday as thousands rallied in cities across the country during what has been billed as the "Day of Rage."
The Iraqi capital was virtually locked down, with soldiers deployed en masse across central Baghdad, searching protesters trying to enter Liberation Square and closing off the plaza and side streets with razor wire. The heavy security presence reflected the concern of Iraqi officials that demonstrations here could gain traction as they did in Egypt and Tunisia, then spiral out of control.
Iraqi army helicopters buzzed overhead, while Humvees and trucks took up posts throughout the square, where a group of about 2,000 flag-waving demonstrators shouted "No to unemployment," and "No to the liar al-Maliki," referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The protests stretched from the northern city of Mosul to the southern city of Basra, reflecting the widespread anger many Iraqis feel at the government's seeming inability to improve their lives.
A crowd of angry marchers in the northern city of Hawija, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad, tried to break into the city's municipal building, said the head of the local city council, Ali Hussein Salih. That prompted security forces to fire into the air.
"We had given our instructions to police guards who are responsible for protecting this governmental building not to open fire, only if the demonstrators broke into the building," he said.
Three demonstrators were killed and 15 people wounded, according to the Hawija police chief, Col. Fattah Yaseen.
In Mosul, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the provincial council building, demanding jobs and better services, when guards opened fire, according to a police official. A police and hospital official said two protesters were killed and five people wounded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media.
Black smoke could later be seen billowing from the building.
While in the south, a crowd of about 4,000 people demonstrated in front of the office of Gov. Sheltagh Aboud al-Mayahi in the port city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad. They knocked over one of the concrete barriers and demanded his resignation, saying he'd done nothing to improve city services.
They appeared to get their wish when the commander of Basra military operations, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Jawad Hawaidi, told the crowd that the governor had resigned in response to the demonstrations. Iraqi state TV announced that the prime minister asked the governor to step down but made no mention of the protests.
Around 1,000 demonstrators also clashed with police in the western city of Fallujah 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad clashed with authorities, witnesses said.
The demonstrations have been discussed for weeks on Facebook and in other Internet groups, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. More people were expected to join after Friday prayers.
While demonstrations in other Middle Eastern countries have focused on overthrowing the government, the protests in Iraq have centered on corruption, the country's chronic unemployment and shoddy public services like electricity.
"We want a good life like human beings, not like animals," said one protester in Baghdad, 44-year-old Khalil Ibrahim. Like many Iraqis, he railed against a government that locks itself in the highly fortified Green Zone, home to the parliament and the U.S. Embassy, and is viewed by most of its citizens as more interested in personal gain than public service.
"The government of the Green Zone is terrified of the people's voice," he said.
Iraq has seen a number of small-scale protests across the country in recent weeks. While most have been peaceful, a few have turned violent and seven people have been killed. The biggest rallies have been in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, against the government of the self-ruled region.
But Iraqi religious and government officials appeared nervous over the possibility of a massive turnout for Friday's rally, and have issued a steady stream of statements trying to dissuade people from taking part.
On the eve of the event, al-Maliki urged people to skip the rally, which he alleged was organized by Saddamists and al-Qaida — two of his favorite targets of blame for an array of Iraq's ills. He offered no evidence to support his claim.
The Baghdad Operations Command said terrorists wanting to infiltrate the demonstration may dress up as police or army troops.
Shiite religious leaders have also discouraged people from taking part, making it unlikely that much of the country's majority Shiite population would turn out.
In the Sunni enclave of Azamiyah, one of the residents said that people there did not want to attend because they feared being labeled Saddamists.
"The government has already convicted anyone who takes part in the demonstrations by accusing them of terrorism," said 41-year-old Ammar al-Azami.