Iraq‘s security forces shot dead at least four protesters in Baghdad on Thursday, and killed four others during a sit-in in the southern city of Basra, police and medical sources said, as weeks of deadly unrest showed no signs of abating.
Another 35 people were wounded in clashes near the capital city’s Shuhada Bridge as mass demonstrations continued for a 13th straight day with thousands thronging the city centre.
The protesters were trying to remove barriers near two bridges that lead to the western bank of the Tigris River and provide access to the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies. Now all bridges leading to the Green Zone have been blocked by security forces.
A security official said more reinforcements were added to the entrances leading to the Green Zone. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Gunfire was also used against demonstrators in Basra, the main source of Iraq’s oil wealth, who had staged a days-long sit-in.
Elsewhere in southern Iraq, dozens of protesters burned tyres and blocked the entrance to the port of Umm Qasr, preventing lorries from transporting food imports, just hours after operations had resumed, port officials said.
The Iraqi government has failed to find a way out of the biggest and most complicated challenge to its rule in years. The unrest has shattered the relative calm that followed the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) in 2017.
A crackdown by authorities against mostly unarmed protesters has killed more than 260 people since the unrest broke out on October 1 over lack of jobs, services and an infrastructure wrecked by decades of conflict, sanctions and corruption.
Protesters, mostly unemployed young people, blame a political elite that has ruled Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in a 2003 US-led invasion, and demand a complete overhaul of the political system.
At Tahrir Square, the site of many recent demonstrations, Amer Abbas held a photograph of his brother with whom he came to a protest on October 1. Ismael Abbas was hit in the abdomen with a tear gas canister fired by security forces, and died from his wounds last week after complications during surgery.
“When I hold his photo, I feel like he is with me, just like when he came with me to the protest. I want to avenge his death. I blame the politics,” Abbas told Al Jazeera.
Key port closed again
In southern Iraq, protesters forced the closing of the country’s main port hours after services had resumed following days of closure.
The short-lived reopening of the Umm Qasr port, which houses a vital oil terminal and is an entry point for food and basic goods, came a day after the military called on the protesters to stop blocking roads and ports.
But shortly afterwards, dozens of anti-government protesters – including relatives of a demonstrator killed during weeks of violence – returned and started burning tires and blocking the road to the port.
Cargo-carrying trucks came to a standstill and the port shut down again.
The country is beginning to feel the fiscal pinch of weeks of the unrest, which started in Baghdad and quickly spread to southern cities.
The new stoppage of operations at Umm Qasr port in the south is likely to compound financial losses a day after the government said a weeklong halt of operations had cost more than $6bn.
Oil and security officials said operations resumed on Thursday at the nearby Nassiriya oil refinery, where protesters had stopped fuel tankers entering or leaving the day before.
Oil production and exports have not been significantly affected by the unrest, oil ministry officials said.
But the halting of fuel tankers that transport fuel from the Nassiriya refinery to regional gas stations caused fuel shortages across the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar. The refinery had recently been producing about half its capacity.
Internet returned briefly in most parts of Iraq on Thursday but went out again after 1pm local time (10:00 GMT). Authorities have heavily restricted internet access during the protests.
The government said it is enacting reforms but has offered nothing that is likely to satisfy most protesters.
Stipends for the poor, more job opportunities for graduates, and pledges to punish a handful of corrupt officials have come too late for those demanding an overhaul of state institutions, a flawed electoral process, and system of governance that has fuelled endemic corruption, many Iraqis say.