A day after six people were killed in southern Iraq’s Basra city, violent protests over poor government services continued with security forces opening fire after new clashes.
Protesters in Basra told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that live ammunition and tear gas were fired by security personnel at hundreds of demonstrators outside the regional government headquarters in the oil-rich province.
At least one demonstrator was taken to hospital after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister. An overnight curfew was imposed and more security personnel deployed in the city, an army official said.
Residents in Iraq’s second-largest city are particularly angry over pollution of the water supply, which, they allege, has hospitalised more than 20,000 people.
On Tuesday, six demonstrators were shot dead and 20 wounded when hundreds of people gathered to mourn the death of a protester killed a day before.
The Iraqi army on Wednesday blamed “unidentified gunmen” for the death of the six demonstrators.
“The protesters slain yesterday in downtown Basra were killed by unknown gunmen in a car,” army commander Jamil al-Shammari said in a statement a day after the massacre.
Al-Shammari denied reports that Iraqi security forces fired on protesters outside provincial headquarters but went on to assert that the demonstrations “were not entirely peaceful in nature”.
“Security forces were surprised to find a group of demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails, burning tires and attacking citizens,” he said.
Jan Kubis, United Nations envoy to Iraq, called for “calm” in Basra and urged authorities “to avoid using disproportionate, lethal force against the demonstrators”.
Kubis also asked the government to “investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the outbreak of violence” and “do its utmost to respond to the people’s rightful demands of clean water and electricity supplies”.
Defending his government over Basra’s deadly unrest, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday said he had ordered “no real bullets … to be fired in the direction of protesters or in the air”.
Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who is hoping to form a new government with al-Abadi, said in a tweet before the latest clashes that “vandals infiltrated” the protesters.
Iraq is currently in a state of political limbo with al-Sadr’s coalition winning the largest number of seats in national elections held in May, but falling short of a majority.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, pledged to take measures to put an end to the health crisis that has ravaged the oil-rich province of Basra.
Al-Abadi announced on Tuesday that he had met legislators from Basra, who are in Baghdad for the parliament’s first session since the elections, to resolve the water pollution issue.
In July, the government announced a multibillion-dollar emergency plan for southern Iraq to revive the region’s infrastructure and services.
But protesters said they are wary of promises made by the outgoing government, even as negotiations drag on over the formation of the next administration.