BAGHDAD – Thousands marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces Friday in cities across Iraq in an outpouring of anger that left 12 people dead – the largest and most violent anti-government protests in the country since political unrest began spreading in the Arab world weeks ago.
In northern Iraqi cities, security forces trying to push back crowds opened fire, killing 10 demonstrators. In the western Anbar province, two people were shot and killed in a protest. In the capital of Baghdad, demonstrators knocked down blast walls, threw rocks and scuffled with club-wielding troops who chased them down the street.
The protests, billed as a “Day of Rage,” were fueled by anger over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services from the Shiite-dominated government. Shiite religious leaders discouraged people from taking part, greatly diminishing the Shiite participation and the overall size of the crowd in a country where such religious edicts hold great sway.
In Baghdad’s Sunni enclave of Azamiyah, one resident said 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.
Khalil Ibrahim, 44, one of about 3,000 protesters in downtown Baghdad, railed against a government that locks itself in the 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.
“We want a good life like human beings, not like animals,” Ibrahim said.
The center of Baghdad was virtually locked down Friday, with soldiers searching protesters entering Liberation Square and closing off the plaza and side streets with razor wire. The heavy security presence reflected the official concerns 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 flag-waving demonstrators shouted, “No to unemployment,” and “No to the liar al-Maliki,” referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Demonstrators trying to get across a bridge from the square to the Green Zone clashed with security forces. The demonstrators knocked down some of the concrete blast walls that were put up Thursday night and threw rocks at troops who beat them back with batons. Six riot police and 12 demonstrators were wounded in the melee, according to police and hospital officials.