Death toll hike over Iraq unrest

The death toll from days of violent demonstrations across Iraq surged to 44 on Friday, most of them killed in the last 24 hours, as unrest rapidly accelerated across the country despite a plea from the prime minister for calm.

In an overnight TV address, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he understood the frustration of the public but there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems. He made reform pledges, but these drew a scornful response from demonstrators.

The violent demonstrations have escalated by the day since they first erupted on Tuesday, sweeping across the country spontaneously, without public backing from any organized political group and taking the authorities by surprised.

Security forces have fired live ammunition at crowds of mainly young men, and gunmen have occasionally fired back. Hundreds of people have been wounded, including members of the security forces as well as demonstrators.

Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll of at least 44 included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba, to the capital’s north. Other deaths were reported in two other southern cities, Hilla and Najaf.

Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and northeast and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad’s densely-populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya, the city worst hit by the violence.

Protesters in Baghdad gathered in darkness by a bonfire set among the flaming wreckage of an armored vehicle, across the Tigris River from the government compound.

“They are shooting live fire at the Iraqi people and the revolutionaries. We can cross the bridge and take them out of the Green Zone!” a man shouted to Reuters TV.

“Abdul Mahdi, they will cross the bridge. You better resign. Resign. The people demand the fall of the regime!” he shouted as the crowd behind him took up a chant that swept the Middle East during popular uprisings across the region in 2011: “The people demand the fall of the regime!”

The unrest also comes on the eve of the Arbaeen Shi’ite pilgrimage, which in recent years has drawn as many as 20 million worshippers, trekking for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering, ten times the size of the Mecca Hajj.

Pilgrims were already taking to the roads on Friday, although in what appeared to be smaller numbers than in recent years. Iran has closed one of the border crossings used by millions of pilgrims. Qatar has told its citizens to stay away.

The Iraqi capital was quieter early on Friday ahead of Muslim prayers, although police fired live ammunition again in the morning to disperse small crowds.

An ongoing curfew, defied by thousands of demonstrators on Thursday, saw army and special forces deploy around central.

Source: Reuters


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