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Iraq declares Baghdad curfew as protests persist

People stage a protest after Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi's decision on withdrawal of the security forces of 61st Special Forces Brigade in front of the brigade's headquarters from Kirkuk, Iraq on 15 October, 2019 [Ali Mukarrem Garip/Anadolu Agency]
People stage a protest after Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi's decision on withdrawal of the security forces of 61st Special Forces Brigade in front of the brigade's headquarters from Kirkuk, Iraq on 15 October, 2019 [Ali Mukarrem Garip/Anadolu Agency]

Iraq declared a curfew in Baghdad on Monday as two people were killed and 112 injured in the fourth day of anti-government protests, and the coalition government's most powerful erstwhile supporter called for early elections, reports Reuters.

Baghdad's top military commander imposed the curfew from midnight (2100 GMT) until 6 am (0300 GMT) effective "until further notice," state television said, but protesters in the capital's central Tahrir Square remained defiant.

The curfew provides cover for security forces to clear the square, demonstrators said, but they intended on going nowhere.

"No, we will stay. They have now declared a curfew and severe punishments for anyone not going to work, this is how they fight us. We will stay here until the last day, even if there are a thousand martyrs," one protester said.

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The unrest, driven by discontent over economic hardship and deep-seated corruption, has broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq, which from 2003 to 2017 endured a foreign occupation, civil war, and a Daesh insurgency.

Counting Monday's deaths, which security and medical sources said resulted from security forces launching tear gas canisters directly at the heads of protesters, some 233 people have been killed overall in the disturbances this month.

Security forces on Monday fired tear gas at school and university students who defied a warning from Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and joined thousands in Baghdad protesting against his government.

A spokesman for the premier, whose position is increasingly precarious in the face of the stiffest challenge since he took office a year ago, said on Sunday that anyone disrupting work or school days would be severely punished.

Soldiers were seen beating high school students with batons in two Baghdad districts. A Defence Ministry statement condemned the incident and said the soldiers did not represent the Iraqi army as a whole. It did not say if they would be punished.

Populist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who backs parliament's largest bloc and helped bring Abdul Mahdi's fragile coalition government to power, called for early elections shortly after the curfew was announced.

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"Abdul Mahdi must go to parliament and announce early elections to be overseen by the United Nations," Sadr said in a statement. He called on existing political parties not to run.

Mass street protests in Baghdad and other cities in the south flared at the start of the month and resumed on Friday after a pause of about two weeks.

Thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on Sunday, defying a bloody crackdown that had killed scores over the previous two days, and an overnight raid by security forces seeking to disperse them.

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