At least 31 people in Iraq have been killed and hundreds more wounded after three days of clashes between anti-government demonstrators demanding more opportunities and Iraqi security forces trying to quell the violence.
The spontaneous rallies began in Baghdad Tuesday by disenfranchised youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country. By Thursday, the protests had spread to other regions of Iraq.
Authorities cut internet access in much of Iraq since late Wednesday in a concerted effort to curb the rallies. Social and messaging apps, used to organize the protests, were also blocked. By Thursday afternoon, a curfew was extended to three other southern provinces.
The unrest is the most serious challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old government, which also has been caught in the middle of increasing U.S.-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Some Baghdad demonstrators blamed Iranian-backed groups within the security forces for the violence. Media affiliated with the Iranian-backed groups have pointed fingers at the United States and Saudi Arabia for the unrest.
In the last three days, at least 20 protesters and one policeman were killed in four provinces. On Thursday, the first death was reported in Baghdad where one protester was killed as the demonstrators pushed their way toward Tahrir Square in the city center. The square has been off-limits since Wednesday night just before the curfew.
At least three protesters were shot and killed Thursday in Zaafaraniya, a southern Baghdad neighborhood, according to police and a medical official.
Explosions were heard before dawn inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government offices and foreign embassies.
In the latest deaths, at least six protesters were shot and killed Thursday in the city of Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south of Baghdad, a medical official told The Associated Press. Nasiriyah has seen the most violence since the protests began on Tuesday.
The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.
Two demonstrators were killed Tuesday and at least 17 deaths were reported Wednesday, including a policeman, in rallies in Nasiriyah, Kut, and Amara, according to security officials.
Baghdad’s main streets were largely deserted Thursday morning, except for Iraqi army vehicles. Some sideroads were blocked with barbed wire.
When the demonstrators tried to reach a nearby bridge leading to the Green Zone, Iraqi security forces started shooting automatic rifles above the crowd. They also fired tear gas, according to an AP cameraman.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.