BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces killed four protesters in Baghdad on Friday and forcibly dispersed activists blocking the main port near Basra, as the country’s top cleric warned nothing but speedy electoral reforms would resolve unrest.
The clashes centered on Baghdad’s Rasheed Street. Security forces opened fire and launched tear gas at protesters on a central Baghdad bridge.
Two people died from bullet wounds and two from tear gas canisters launched directly at their heads. At least 61 more were injured.
In the south, security forces reopened the entrance to Iraq’s main port, Umm Qasr, which protesters had blocked since Monday. Normal operations had not yet resumed.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, urged politicians to hurry up in reforming electoral laws because the changes would be the only way to resolve weeks of deadly unrest.
“We affirm the importance of speeding up the passing of the electoral law and the electoral commission law because this represents the country moving past the big crisis,” his representative said during a sermon in Karbala.
He also repeated his view that the protesters had legitimate demands and should not be met with violence.
The fighting appeared to have begun when protesters tried Thursday to dismantle a security forces barricade on the street, which leads to Ahrar Bridge, a span over the Tigris River that has been a repeated flashpoint.
Security forces responded with barrages of tear gas and live ammunition that killed 10 protesters and injured more than 100 by Thursday evening.
The violence took off again Friday afternoon. Live rounds and tear gas cannisters were fired by security forces from behind a concrete barrier on Rasheed Street.
With their faces concealed with surgical masks, protesters ran from the scene, picking up the bodies of the dead and wounded who collapsed on their way. Plumes of smoke billowed as ammunition fire rang out in the background.
One protester was killed Friday by live ammunition, while the other two died because of tear gas, the officials said. It was not immediately clear if they died from inhaling the gas or from a direct hit by a tear gas cannister, which has caused several other deaths in recent weeks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Protesters have held one side of Baghdad’s three main bridges — Sinak and Ahrar and Jumhuriya — leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government. Security forces are deployed on the other side to prevent them entering the area, which houses government buildings and various foreign embassies, including the United States.
At least 320 protesters have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when demonstrators took to the streets in Baghdad and across Iraq’s mainly Shiite south to decry rampant government corruption and lack of basic services despite Iraq’s oil wealth.
The international community, including the United Nations and the United States have denounced the use of force against peaceful demonstrators in statements.
The leaderless movement seeks to dismantle the sectarian system and unseat the government, including Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Protesters are demanding the overthrow of a political class seen as corrupt and serving foreign powers while many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, health care or education.