More protesters killed in Iraq, cleric warns of deepening crisis
At least 340 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in October
Iraqi security forces killed four protesters in Baghdad on Friday and forcibly dispersed protesters blocking the country's main port near Basra, as the country's top cleric warned nothing but speedy electoral reforms would resolve unrest.
Security forces opened fire and launched tear gas at protesters on a central Baghdad bridge, police sources said. Two people died from bullet wounds and one from a tear gas canister launched directly at the head; another succumbed to injuries later in the evening, officials said. At least 27 more were injured.
It was not immediately clear if they died from inhaling the gas or from a direct hit by a tear gas canister, which has caused several other deaths in recent weeks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Separately, a Katyusha rocket landed near the fortified Green Zone, Iraq's seat of government, police officials said. There were no casualties from the incident. Last week two rockets landed in the Tigris River and a stadium, both near the Green Zone.
In the south, security forces reopened the entrance to Iraq's main port, Umm Qasr, which protesters had blocked since Monday, port sources said, but normal operations had not yet resumed.
At least 340 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in Baghdad and southern Iraq in early October, the largest demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
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.
Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Friday for 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 the holy city of Karbala, 100 kilometres southwest of Baghdad.
Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics except in times of crisis, holds massive influence over public opinion in Iraq. He repeated his view that the protesters had legitimate demands and should not be met with violence.
Unsatisfied by government reform promises they see as meagre, many protesters have turned to civil disobedience in recent weeks.
They blocked Umm Qasr from Oct. 29 to Nov. 9, apart from a brief resumption of operations for three days. It receives imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar shipments that feed a country largely dependent on imported food.
The initial blockage cost Iraq more than $6 billion US during the first week of the closure, a government spokesperson said at the time.
Protesters in Baghdad are also disrupting traffic, and are still holding ground, controlling parts of three major bridges which lead to the capital's fortified Green Zone.
7 killed Thursday
Friday's casualties follow the deaths of seven people on Thursday when security forces shot live fire and tear gas canisters at demonstrators in Baghdad, security and medical sources said.
The cause of death was live fire and tear gas canisters aimed directly at the head, the sources said, adding that at least 78 people were wounded in the unrest.
Police said earlier one protester was killed near Baghdad's Sinak bridge and one near the adjacent Ahrar bridge, police said.
Two other critically wounded protesters died in hospital later, one from wounds caused by live fire shots to the head and the other struck in the head by tear gas canister, police and hospital sources said.
Three more were killed later in the day, including two by live fire near Ahrar bridge.
Hospital sources said some of the wounded protesters had injuries sustained from live ammunition and others were wounded by rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
Deadly use of live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly unarmed demonstrators have stoked the unrest.
With files from Reuters