Iraqi government decision to cut salaries, pensions sparks outrage as the country faces worst economic crisis in years.
At least two protesters have been killed in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, during renewed overnight demonstrations against corruption, unemployment and poor public services.
The deaths reported on Monday by human rights monitors and officials were the first during anti-government rallies since Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn into office in May.
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from Baghdad, said dozens of people were also wounded late on Sunday after “plain-clothed officials” opened fire using live ammunition towards the demonstrators who were gathered in Tahrir Square.
The square has been the epicentre of a protest movement that erupted in October last year but had died down in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Over the past few days, we have seen a surge in demonstrations taking place, not just in Baghdad but also in the southern provinces,” Foltyn said.
“People are driven by the lack of services and electricity, just as the country is going through a major heatwave,” she added.
Demonstrators on Sunday staged rallies in the capital and southern cities, where temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) have overwhelmed electricity generators.
In Baghdad, dozens of protesters clashed with police and other security forces stationed in Tahrir Square.
Since taking office after months of political deadlock, al-Kadhimi had promised a dialogue with protesters and had requested comprehensive lists of all those who have been killed and wounded throughout the months-long protests in a bid to bring about accountability and compensation.
In a statement overnight, his office acknowledged “unfortunate events” in protest squares, but insisted security forces had been instructed not to use violence unless absolutely necessary.
It said the government would carry out an investigation into Sunday’s events to hold those responsible accountable.
But online, activists were already comparing the new prime minister to his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who stepped down last year in the face of growing protests.
Some 550 people were killed in that wave of rallies and another 30,000 wounded, many of them by military-grade tear gas canisters that can pierce human skulls if fired directly – rather than lobbed at an arc – to disperse crowds.
An implosion of oil prices as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has also forced the government to impose austerity measures that have made it more difficult for people to get by in their daily lives, which could also give rise to renewed demonstrations.
To date, oil-rich Iraq has reported 110,032 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,362 related deaths.