Iraq said on Tuesday that anti-government protests in Baghdad have been beleaguered by "criminal groups" who seek to cause havoc in the country after three demonstrators were killed.
The Interior Ministry said in a report that "security services have monitored dangerous criminal groups seeking to create chaos" during the demonstrations.
"Their mission is to trigger security forces to attack demonstrators by starting conflict with them," said the report.
The ministry urged protesters to "cooperate" with security forces to identify the "criminal groups."
It comes as Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered an investigation into the killing of anti-government protesters, saying security forces were not authorised to fire "a single bullet" towards the demonstrators.
The violence came after months of quiet following the coronavirus pandemic, and were an embarrassment to Prime Minister Mr Al Kadhimi, who has vowed to meet protester demands by holding early elections and investigating the death of hundreds of protesters at the hands of security forces in recent months.
Tensions between the security forces and the demonstrators soared late on Sunday when dozens of protesters cut the road connecting two main intersections – Tayaran Square and Tahrir Square – in the capital Baghdad. Some burnt tyres while others chanted slogans about power cuts in the scorching summer months.
Iraq is facing electricity shortages amid searing summer temperatures that can top 50° Celsius.
Medics at two hospitals in Baghdad told reporters that two men were hit in their head and neck with tear gas canisters and died of their injuries overnight on Sunday.
More than 26 protesters were wounded and several members of the security forces suffered minor injuries, police said.
“Every bullet directed at our youth and our people while demanding their rights is a bullet directed at our dignity and principles,” Mr Al Kadhimi said in a televised speech on Monday. He said he had ordered an inquiry and asked the facts to be placed before him within 72 hours.
A senior Electricity Ministry official said the power supply fell short by 10,000 megawatts this summer, down 1,000 megawatts compared with last year, due to lack of maintenance in several power plants because of lack of funds in state coffers. This has also slowed investment projects to add more power to Iraq’s grid.
Mr Al Kadhimi said there was no “magic solution” for Iraq’s electricity problem, which is a result of decades of corruption and mismanagement and “cannot be resolved overnight.” He said his government was working on a solution, and reiterated his intention to pave the way for early elections in line with protesters’ demands.
In October, mass anti-government protests erupted in Baghdad and across Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south as tens of thousands of angry Iraqi youth took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, unemployment and poor services, including electricity. Pressure from protests lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Since October, more than 600 demonstrators have been killed during protests due to gunfire and tear gas used by security forces. But Mr Al Kadhimi, who was sworn in as prime minister in May, also has to cope with an unprecedented economic crisis spurred by falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
Iraq’s health ministry has reported 110,032 cases, including 4,362 deaths.
The spread of the coronavirus had halted mass rallies and prompted most protesters to leave, with only a few remaining at the tent sit-in at Tahrir Square, once the centre of the protest movement.
Ali Al Bayati, a spokesman for the semi-official Independent High Commission for Human Rights, also said two protesters had been killed. The commission said their reports indicated live fire and pellet rifles were used to disperse protesters.
Earlier, Iraqi security officials said demonstrators had hurled firebombs and stones at the riot police, while rights monitors said security forces set fire to demonstrator tents at Tahrir Square.
Military spokesman Yahya Rasool said security forces had been given strict instructions not to use violence against peaceful protesters “except in the event of extreme necessity”.
He said the events in Baghdad squares were “unfortunate” and that an inquiry was under way into what happened.
“We are aware of the difficulties that our people are going through,” Mr Rasool said. “This government, with its short life, is trying to address (them) under exceptional economic and health conditions,” he said.
Separately, four katyusha rockets landed in Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, which houses US-led coalition troops, Iraqi security officials said.
One official said the rockets targeted a runway used by Iraqi helicopters, close to where American forces are present. One helicopter was damaged.