Iraq Police Fire on Baghdad Protesters

Iraq Police Fire on Baghdad Protesters

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi police fired live shots into the air as well as rubber bullets and dozens of tear gas canisters on Friday to disperse thousands of protesters on the streets of Baghdad, sending young demonstrators running for cover and enveloping a main bridge in the capital with thick white smoke.

More than 60 people were taken to hospital with breathing difficulties, according to hospital officials.

The confrontations began early in the morning after anti-government demonstrations resumed, following a three-week hiatus. The protests began Oct. 1 over corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services but quickly turned deadly as security forces cracked down, using live ammunition for days.

The protests then spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces and authorities imposed a curfew and shut down the internet for days in an effort to quell the unrest.

After a week of violence in the capital and the country's southern provinces, a government-appointed inquiry into the protests determined that security forces had used excessive force, killing 149 people and wounding over 3,000. Eight members of the security forces were also killed.

The protests, unprecedented in their scale, threatened to plunge Iraq into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State group.

Subsequently, Iraqi security forces and government officials vowed to avoid further deadly violence and deployed heavily on the streets of Baghdad in anticipation of Friday's protests.

The current round of protests has been endorsed by Iraq's nationalist Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular Shiite support base and the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc's participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were a "conspiracy" from the outside.

As in the protests earlier this month, the protesters, organized on social media, started from the central Tahrir Square. The demonstrators, mostly young, unemployed men, carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government protests, demanding jobs, water and electricity.

"I want my country back, I want Iraq back," said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an employee at the Iraqi Education Ministry, who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag #We want a country, printed on it.

However, after thousands of protesters crossed the Jumhuriyya Bridge leading to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, soldiers fired at first just tear gas, then live rounds to push back the protesters after they removed concrete barriers in an effort to reach the Green Zone's entrance.

"Baghdad hurra hurra, fasad barra barra," they chanted, Arabic for "Baghdad is free, corruption is out."

Riot police in full gear and armed soldiers lined the bridge. Ambulances and tuk tuks zipped back and forth, ferrying the injured to hospitals for treatment. A reporter for Iraq's Sumariyya channel was among the injured.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests.

He gave an address to the nation in the early hours Friday, promising a government reshuffle next week and pledging reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protests.

(KR)