Two anti-government protesters were killed by security forces and dozens injured in Baghdad late on Sunday, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said, during a new round of demonstrations against corruption and poor public services.
The latest protests were triggered by electricity cuts in the searing summer heat and growing grievances over a lack of basic services and widespread unemployment.
It is the first deadly demonstration since Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi took office in May. Tensions between the security forces and the demonstrators soared when dozens of protesters cut off the road connecting two main intersections, at Tayaran Square and Tahrir Square.
Human rights monitors said that officials disguised in ordinary clothes opened fire using live ammunition on the demonstrators, who burned tyres and chanted slogans about power cuts in the scorching summer months.
Military spokesman Yehya Rasool said in a statement on Monday that security forces were given strict instructions not to use force against protesters unless necessary, adding that an investigation into what happened will be conducted.
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.
More than 26 protesters were wounded and several members of the security forces suffered minor injuries, police said.
On Monday, Mr Al Kadhimi held a meeting with electricity minister Majid Mahdi Hantoush to discuss ways to overcome the country's electricity crisis.
"We will spare no effort to assist the Ministry of Electricity in providing the best services to the public to relieve suffering because Iraqis deserve the best," he said.
The prime minister said his government faces "great challenges" but he has taken "effective" steps to find solutions to each crisis.
Mr Al Kadhimi said that "mismanagement and corruption" during the previous administration led to the crisis that the electricity ministry is currently facing.
Anti-government protests erupted last October in Baghdad and spread across the south after angry Iraqis took to the streets demanding better employment opportunities and public services, including electricity and water.
More than 600 demonstrators were killed and thousands injured by security forces using live fire and tear gas.
Pressure from the protests led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in November.
Prior to joining office, Mr Al Kadhimi vowed to meet demonstrators’ demands by holding early elections and investigating protester deaths. Yet the new prime minister has had to deal with a catastrophic economic crisis triggered by a decline in oil prices caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Iraqis aired their anger with the lack of action made by the government on social media.
Activists compared Mr Al Kadhimi to his predecessor, Mr Abdul Mahdi, and called for him to step down in hashtag that trended on Twitter.
They called for more rallies on Monday night, sending out invitations to gather over WhatsApp and Facebook.
Ali Al Bayati a member of the Independent Iraqi Human Rights Commission, told The National that the government must hold the perpetrators to account and should urgently respond to protester demands.
“We condemn the violence used by the Iraqi Security Forces and remind the government about its commitments to the constitution on protecting citizens and the right of freedom of expression,” Mr Al Bayati said.
The United Nations Mission in Iraq welcomed the government’s commitment to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable for attacks on demonstrators. “Iraqis are in a difficult place facing many challenges. Their right to peaceful protest must be protected unconditionally,” the mission said in a statement on Twitter.