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Iraqi Antigovernment Protests Grow, Part Battle Lines and Carnival


BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government announced a midnight-to-dawn curfew in Baghdad on Monday, as it struggled to contain growing antigovernment protests that have gained support around the country, including from a leading Shiite cleric who has called for early elections.

Iraq’s Parliament met for the first time since the protests restarted — over corruption, unemployment and official accountability — and its first act was to dissolve provincial councils that have been widely criticized as corrupt. Lawmakers also pledged to reduce the salaries of high-ranking officials, including of members of Parliament themselves.

It was not clear, however, how much the public was paying attention to anything the government was doing or saying. Despite considerable efforts to repel the protesters — including with pepper spray, tear gas and sound bombs — they have persisted for days, and now seem to be growing and attracting people from more walks of life.

On Monday, the demonstrators in Baghdad included university students, professionals and government employees, as well as large numbers of unemployed people. The demonstrators called for ousting the politicians who run Iraq, many of whom they accuse of having ties to Iran, and changing Iraq’s system of government, which they see as corrupt and unrepresentative.

“This is the first time in Iraq that I have seen anything like this,” Jassim Mohammed, 43, a paramedic with the Red Crescent, said of the protests. “The more the government shoots, the more the reaction of the people.”

Over the last week, dozens of people have been killed as security forces cracked down on demonstrators and as fighting broke out between competing groups. On Monday, four people were killed and 109 wounded in Baghdad, local hospitals said.

The government’s response in recent days has been more moderate than when the protests began in the first week of October. At that time, the security forces used live fire to drive back those who tried to enter Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone. Nationwide, over the first five days, 157 people were killed, including eight members of the security forces, according to a government report.

A two-week hiatus in protests followed those clashes, and the demonstrators appeared to organize in the calm. The protests resumed on Oct. 25.

Meanwhile, Moktada al-Sadr, a nationalist Shiite cleric, has been stoking the antigovernment sentiment of the protesters, calling for new elections and for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to step down.

Mr. al-Sadr is the only leader of a Shiite political party urging his followers to protest; most of the others, some of whom have ties to Iran, are firmly in the government camp. But Mr. al-Sadr, who has pushed to rid Iraq of both American and Iranian influence, has repeatedly spoken out against corruption, garnering him greater credibility with the demonstrators than some of his peers.

In the last week, government forces have largely refrained from using live fire in Baghdad. Instead, they have resorted to volleys of tear gas and sound bombs, which cause injuries but only rarely kill people.

On Monday, the street running into Tahrir Square, Baghdad’s main gathering place and the entryway to a bridge leading to the Green Zone, was packed with people, food carts and trucks blasting music, as well as protesters beating a traditional drum.

Much of the protest had a festive air: People danced, some men took their shirts off, others wore hats made of the Iraqi flag, and at tea carts vendors handed out cups of sweet tea and sandwiches. Closer to the Green Zone, the demonstration was more of a battle, as security forces fired tear gas and clashed with protesters.

Zipping across that distance, tuk-tuks, small three-wheeled vehicles that operate like a small taxi, delivered demonstrators to the front lines and careened away from tear gas, often with injured protesters crammed into the back seat.

One tuk-tuk driver said he had made 400 trips Monday, starting from just after dawn — all of them at no charge. Some of the tuk-tuks seemed to be helmed by men wearing armored vests, suggesting that they might have ties to the Shiite armed group close to Mr. al-Sadr. But many drivers said they saw themselves as responsible for ferrying the wounded to ambulances, which were parked farther back from the front lines.

“The tuk-tuks are like ambulances, but smaller and going fast,” said Ahmed Moyed, a volunteer doctor.

As injuries mounted over the last few days, several Red Crescent ambulances set up a makeshift first aid station, spreading large blankets on the ground. Medics pulled the wounded out of tuk-tuks one after another, treating them for tear gas with a salt solution to induce vomiting, and a spray to clear the gas from their eyes.

Even before the medics had finished helping one victim, another tuk-tuk would skid to a halt at the blankets, depositing another injured protester. By midevening, the blankets were soaked with sweat, vomit and blood.

Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad.


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