Iraq is in the midst of a major crisis sparked by what appears to be a spontaneous outburst of anger over unemployment, poor services and corruption.
Days of anti-government protests have convulsed the capital, Baghdad, and several other cities.
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Thousands of mostly young men have headed waves of protests, which began in Baghdad on Tuesday before spreading to cities dotted throughout Iraq’s south.
The protests do not appear to have been coordinated by a particular political group and have seemingly cut across ethnic and sectarian lines.
This could make it more difficult for the year-old government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to contain the unrest.
Dozens of people have been killed during clashes between demonstrators and security forces, who have attempted to disperse the protests by using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannon.
In addition to those killed, more than 1,000 protesters have been wounded and scores arrested, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
Curfews have been declared in Baghdad and the southern cities of Nasiriyah, Amara, Najaf and Hilla. Authorities have also imposed a near-total internet blackout in a bid to make it harder for protesters to mobilise.
Angered by Iraq’s stuttering recovery from years of conflict, protesters have rallied to demand improved services, more jobs and an end to the corruption that analysts describe as endemic.
The focus of the demonstrators’ ire has been not just the government but Iraq’s wider political establishment.
Iraq has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but nearly three-fifths of its 40 million people live on less than $6 a day, World Bank figures show.
Unemployment, particularly among young people, is a major issue, while millions lack access to adequate healthcare, schooling, water or power supplies. Much of the country’s infrastructure remains in tatters after decades of near-ongoing conflict, including a United States-led invasion, and United Nations sanctions.
The economic struggles have come despite Iraq enjoying relative stability in recent years after the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group in the country in 2017.
Abdul Mahdi has warned there is no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems but moved to assuage protesters by offering to meet with “representatives of peaceful demonstrators”.
He has also pledged to pass legislation which would grant the country’s poorest families a basic income and generate better employment opportunities.
An emergency parliamentary session has been called for Saturday to address the crisis. But Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political coalition won the most seats in last year’s elections, has urged legislators to boycott sessions until the government presents concrete measures addressing the protesters’ demands.
The country’s top Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged security forces not to use violence and called on the government to heed the demonstrators’ demands “before it is too late”.