Security forces in Iraq have used live fire and tear gas to disperse demonstrators in renewed anti-government protests in Baghdad, wounding several people.
The unrest on Wednesday came a day after at least two Iraqis were killed and 200 wounded in clashes over unemployment, corruption and poor public services. The protests mark the first significant popular challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago.
On Wednesday, the iconic Tahrir Square in Baghdad where hundreds of protesters had gathered the previous day was sealed off by heavily armed soldiers and dozens of riot policemen, with some demonstrators gathering around the edges.
Smaller crowds took to the streets in al-Shaab in north Baghdad and Zafaraniya in the south, an AFP correspondent reported, with riot police attempting to disperse them with tear gas and live rounds fired in the air.
“I came out today in support of my brothers in Tahrir Square,” Abdallah Walid told the AFP in Zafaraniya, where protesters were burning tyres on streets lined with riot police vehicles.
“We want jobs and better public services. We’ve been demanding them for years and the government has never responded,” the 27-year-old said.
At least eight protesters were wounded in the southern district, police sources told The Associated Press news agency. Medical sources told AFP about a dozen people were admitted to hospitals across Baghdad, most of them suffering from tear gas inhalation.
Call for restraint
The United Nations on Wednesday expressed concern over the violence and urged calm, with the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert reaffirming in a statement the right to protest.
“Hennis-Plasschaert urges the authorities to exercise restraint in their handling of the protests to ensure the safety of peaceful protesters while upholding law and order and protecting the people, public and private property,” it said.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said Iraq’s government was taken by surprise over the size of the protests.
“These protests seemingly came out of nowhere. A lot of Iraqis are asking who are the leaders backing these demonstrations? Is it a political party? Is it a religious group? Social media has been driving these protests,” he said, adding that there have been reports of disruptions to internet services in the capital city.
The protests began in Baghdad peacefully on Tuesday but soon turned violent after security forces fought back demonstrators with water cannon, tear gas and live ammunition. Protesters, who included dozens of unemployed university graduates, responded by calling for toppling the government.
They threw stones at security forces and setting tires and trash containers on fire. One person was killed in Baghdad, with some demonstrations taking place in other areas, including in the southern city of Nassiriya where a protester was also shot dead, according to police.
A government statement on Tuesday said 40 members of the security forces were among those wounded and blamed “groups of inciting riots” for the violence.
In a bid to temper the unrest, Mahdi, the prime minister, issued a statement on Tuesday promising jobs for graduates. He instructed the oil ministry and other government bodies to start including a 50 percent quota for local workers in subsequent contracts with foreign companies.
The deaths prompted Iraq’s President Barham Salih to remind security forces that “peaceful protest is a constitutional right”. In a Twitter post late on Tuesday, he wrote: “Our young Iraqi children are looking for reform and jobs, and our duty is to meet these legitimate demands.”
Nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a “fair investigation” into the events in Tahrir Square.
Parliament, too, has ordered a probe into the violence and its human rights committee criticised security forces for their “suppression” of the demonstrations.
Al Jazeera and news agencies