Anti-government demonstrations have resumed in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and several other cities throughout the country after a three-week hiatus.
Iraqi police on Friday fired live ammunition and volleys of tear gas canisters to disperse thousands of protesters that had gathered in Baghdad, where at least two people were killed and more than 200 others were wounded.
Security forces were deployed on the streets of the capital on Thursday night in anticipation of the rallies, which are a continuation of the economically driven demonstrations that began in early October and turned deadly as security forces cracked down, even firing live rounds into crowds.
Demonstrators have called on the government to address high unemployment, poor public services and corruption, blaming fraud and infighting among political leaders for failing to improve their lives two years after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group was declared defeated in Iraq.
“We want the government to step down and for the political system to be completely revamped,” a 20-something year-old protester in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square told Al Jazeera.
“The whole political elite needs to change because the current system has done nothing for us,” added the demonstrator, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
A 28-year-old lawyer told Al Jazeera change needs to begin with a new constitution.
“We want a new constitution. Without that nothing can change. It is the constitution that has created the sectarian crisis we’ve lived in for years,” the lawyer said, also requesting anonymity.
Many Iraqis blame the current constitution, drafted and approved in 2005, two years after a US-led invasion, for the sectarian nature of Iraq’s political system.
Iraqi soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades on Friday as protesters tried to cross a bridge leading to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the US embassy and Iraqi government offices.
At least two demonstrators were killed, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said. Commission member Ali Bayati said “preliminary information” indicated those killed had been “hit in the head or face by tear gas canisters”.
The commission said 224 people were also taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Baghdad, said demonstrators penetrated the Green Zone on Thursday night after toppling barricades around the heavily fortified area. She said gunfire, water cannon, and tear gas were used to push protesters back to Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.
“People are very upset about the ongoing lack of economic opportunities, basic services – such as water and electricity – and what they perceive to be a dysfunctional government that is looting the country of its money. Adding to their anger is the fact that in the first round of protests earlier this month, 149 protesters were killed,” Ghoneim said.
Demonstrations also took place in other parts of the country on Friday, including in the southern city of Nasiriyah, where at least 3,000 protesters stormed the provincial government building and set it ablaze, police sources told the Reuters news agency.
Al Jazeera’s Ghoneim said rallies were being held elsewhere in Southern Iraq too, including in the cities of Basra and Samawa.
“There are people throughout Iraq who have now finished Friday prayers and headed to areas in their cities to protests,” she said.
Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, meanwhile called on protesters and security forces to keep anti-government demonstrations peaceful.
“Real reform and change in the country has to be through peaceful methods,” a representative of the cleric said during a Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.
Al-Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics except in times of crisis, said security forces must not allow attacks on public and private property.
A government-appointed inquiry into the protests determined in a report published on Tuesday that security forces had used excessive force and live fire to quell the demonstrations, killing 149 people and wounding more than 3,000. Eight members of the security forces were also killed.
The report, which said more than 70 percent of the deaths were caused by gunshots to head or chest, held senior commanders responsible, but stopped short of blaming Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and other top officials, saying there had been no orders to shoot.
The violence – Iraq’s worst since the fight against ISIL in 2017 – has posed the biggest challenge to Abdul Mahdi since he took office a year ago.
Renad Mansour, research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera that Friday’s demonstrations were part of a years-long process of disillusionment among young Iraqis.
“Iraqis are rejecting the post-2003 system and they have been trying to voice, year after year, their grievances and sense of disillusionment with it,” Mansour said.
“This has come in the form of low voter turn-out in the last election, protests across the south [of Iraq] last year … and even going back to the mass [anti-government] protests in 2015,” he added.
The main difference now, Mansour said, was the spike in violence that has escalated since early October.
In an attempt to appease Iraqis in the face of the planned demonstrations, Abdul Mahdi said in a televised speech on Thursday night that people would be free to exercise their right to demonstrate, but warned violence would not be tolerated.
Abdul Mahdi stressed a government collapse would drag Iraq into further turmoil.
“The resignation of the government today without a constitutional alternative will lead the country into chaos,” he said.
He reiterated reforms announced in the aftermath of the protests – including a cabinet reshuffle, job opportunities for unemployed youth, and the establishment of a new court to try corrupt officials.
The premier also announced that government salaries, including for top officials, would be gradually halved, with funds redirected to a social security fund for the country’s poorest citizens.