At least two protesters have lost their lives as demonstrators clashed with security forces in Iraq’s southern province of Muthanna, amid escalating unrest in the crisis-hit Arab country’s southern cities over poor public services and claimed widespread corruption.
The deadly incident occurred in the provincial capital of Samawa on Sunday, a week after protest rallies began to form in the southern cities, including the important port city of Basra, over poor government services and corruption.
“Hundreds of people tried to storm a courthouse. Shots were fired towards us. It was not clear who was shooting. We had no choice but to open fire,” said a local police official.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of protesters rallied in Basra, where police used water cannons and tear gas as some of the demonstrators tried to storm the provincial government building.
Basra is an important hub for oil exports which account for over 95 percent of Iraq’s government revenues.
Long neglected, the city is one of the few cities in the Middle East without an effective water treatment system. Many of its waterways are stagnant cesspools, with state officials blaming a public funding crisis caused by years of low oil prices. Basra residents had previously warned of more rallies if their demands were not met.
On Friday, one protester was killed and 15 others were injured in the province of Maysan’s capital of Amarah. Local authorities at the time said that angry demonstrators were reportedly attempting to storm the governor’s office. Another protester was also killed in Basra on the same day.
Additionally on Friday, at least 25 security forces were wounded in the province of Dhi Qar as they tried to break up crowds of protesters in Nasiriyah, the provincial capital.
A similar rally was also staged in the holy city of Najaf on Friday as public anger mounted over unemployment and delivery of basic services. Local sources said hundreds of demonstrators entered the main hall of the city’s airport and walked on to the tarmac, temporarily disrupting air traffic.
Najaf is a popular destination for Shia pilgrims. Flights to Iran’s holy city of Mashhad also take place from Najaf, with IRNA news agency saying they had been temporarily suspended until further notice.
Unidentified calls were posted on social media Saturday for massive demonstrations to take place in Baghdad. Some urged demonstrators to head for the fortified Green Zone, an area out of bounds for most Iraqis where key institutions and embassies, including the US and British missions, are located.
On Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, issued a statement, expressing solidarity with the protesters. He added that he was concerned about people’s difficult living conditions.
The protests over basic services come at a sensitive time when Iraqi political factions are trying to form a coalition government after the May 12 parliamentary elections.