Popular protests multiplied across Iraq on Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators braved live fire and tear gas in rallies that have left nine dead in 24 hours.
The demonstrations have posed the first major challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago this month and who controversially blamed the violence on “aggressors” among the protesters.
Since erupting in Baghdad on Tuesday, they have spread to other cities in the country’s south, with crowds railing against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment.
On Wednesday, five protesters and a police officer were shot dead in the southern city of Nasiriyah, a provincial health official told AFP.
That brought the death toll in the protests to nine, including one protester who died in Nasiriyah on Tuesday and two others in a large demonstration in Baghdad that degenerated into violence.
In the capital on Wednesday, riot police attempted to disperse crowds in a half-dozen neighbourhoods by unleashing tear gas and live rounds into the air.
Protesters regrouped and tried to reach Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir Square for the second day, but police had sealed off the area.
Later on Wednesday, military vehicles and security forces also deployed around the Green Zone, which hosts government buildings and embassies.
Access to the area would be completely denied “until further notice,” a government source told AFP.
The Green Zone had been inaccessible for most Iraqis since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq but had reopened to the public in June.
It has often been the focal point for public anger, including in 2016 when supporters of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr stormed it and paralysed state institutions.
Late Wednesday, Sadr called for “peaceful protests and a general strike”.
Amid concerns over additional protests, Abdel Mahdi ordered that a curfew in Baghdad be implimented after Iraqi authorities announced Thursday would be an official holiday.
The curfew on “vehicles and people in Baghdad” comes into force at 5:00 am local time (0200 GMT) on Thursday.
Curfews had already been imposed in two cities, Nasiriyah and the holy city of Najaf, after protests broke out.