At least three people were killed in anti-government protests in Baghdad on Wednesday while 17 others were injured, Iraq‘s human rights committee said.
Iraqis have congregated in the capital’s Tahrir Square for weeks demanding an overhaul of the political system in the biggest wave of mass protests since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The death toll came as Iraq’s military spokesman said security forces were ordered not to use live fire on demonstrators.
“To avoid any confusion, clear and strict instructions have been handed down that no live ammunition be used. Orders have also been given not allow any live ammunition on the scene [of protests],” Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.
In the 24 hours to late Tuesday, security forces shot dead at least 13 protesters.
Abu Zahra, 50, said demonstrators were peacefully protesting.
“We are here to block the bridges. If we don’t, security forces are going to retake all the bridges and Tahrir Square and end our protest. We are defending our brothers in Tahrir.”
Haider Raaed sells Iraqi flags on the streets of Baghdad that have become more popular since the demonstrations began.
“We want a new country, better than this one ruled by [Prime Minister] Adel Abdul Mahdi. He killed young men. Every time young people come to buy flags and go back [to protest] they started shooting live ammunition,” Raaed told Al Jazeera.
Security forces opened fire again later on Wednesday, this time to prevent demonstrators from blocking a fifth bridge.
Internet access remained limited after the government shut it down earlier this week. Netblocks, a civil society group that tracks internet restrictions, said usage dropped to 19 percent of normal levels overnight Tuesday before being partially restored.
Netblocks said on Wednesday that Iraq “remains largely offline”.
“Blocking the internet is a catastrophe. The authorities have totally isolated us from the world and started killing us,” columnist Muhtada Jabbar told Al Jazeera.
On Tuesday, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general, said a recent UN report pointed towards severe human rights violations committed by Iraq’s security forces.
“The latest report indicates that demonstration-related violence … caused at least 97 further deaths and thousands of injuries,” said Dujarric.
“Although Iraqi security officials displayed more restraint compared to previous demonstrations earlier in October, particularly in Baghdad, the unlawful use of lethal and less-lethal weapons by security forces and armed people requires urgent attention.”
More than 260 Iraqis have been killed in demonstrations since the start of October against a political class they see as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests. In the 24 hours to late Tuesday, security forces shot dead at least 13 protesters.
Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators continued to gather in Iraq’s impoverished southern Shia heartland with a group blocking the entrance to the Nassiriya oil refinery in the oil-producing southern province of Basra, security and oil sector sources said.
The protesters stopped tankers that transport fuel to gas stations from entering the refinery, causing fuel shortages.
Security forces forcibly dispersed a sit-in there overnight but no deaths were reported, security sources said. Protesters had camped out in front the provincial government building.
South of Basra, protesters continued to block the highway leading to Iraq’s major Umm Qasr port, which receives the bulk of Iraq’s imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Mahdi said the blocking of the port on the Gulf by anti-government protesters has cost the country more than six billion dollars so far.
“The closure of Umm Qasr port harms the country. Hundreds of trucks are still parked. This issue is causing massive damage to the nation,” said Abdul Kareem Khalaf at a news conference.
Despite the country’s oil wealth, many people live in dire poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education.
Orders to arrest
Security sources said on Wednesday arrest warrants for protest organisers had arrived from Baghdad to all provinces. Dozens of people have already been arrested in Basra and Nassiriya.
The US embassy in Baghdad condemned the deadly violence against unarmed demonstrators, and urged Iraq’s leaders to engage urgently with the thousands who have been protesting.
“We deplore the killing and kidnapping [of] unarmed protesters, threats to freedom of expression, and the cycle of violence taking place. Iraqis must be free to make their own choices about the future of the nation,” it said in a statement.