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Iraqi police fire live rounds as protesters defy curfew

File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Baghdad, Iraq Oct 03, 2019, 03.57 PM (IST)

Iraqi police fired live rounds to disperse crowds that defied a pre-dawn curfew to protest on Thursday after 11 people were killed overnight in clashes that have escalated into one of the worst security challenges since the defeat of Islamic State.

Troops patrolled main roads and public spaces in Baghdad, but by morning small, sporadic demonstrations had begun again in defiance of the open-ended curfew imposed in the capital from 5 a.m.

Clashes overnight in southern cities more than doubled the death toll of three days of unrest, bringing it to 18. The demonstrations began in Baghdad on Tuesday and quickly grew and spread to other cities, mainly in Iraq's south. Police fired live rounds, tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.

Protesters directed their anger at a government and political class they say is corrupt and doing nothing to improve their lives. They demanded jobs, better services and called for the "downfall of the regime".

Curfews imposed in southern Iraqi cities overnight were lifted, local police said. Clashes during the night between protesters and security forces killed seven people including a policeman in Nassiriya, and four people in Amara, police and medics said.

Iraq has struggled to recover from the battle against the Sunni Muslim hardline Islamic State group between 2014 and 2017. Its infrastructure has been laid to waste by decades of sectarian civil war, foreign occupation, two U.S. invasions, U.N. sanctions and war against its neighbours.

With the country at last at peace and free to trade, many Iraqis say their government has failed to rebuild the nation.

Similar demonstrations that began in oil-rich Basra last year prompted a heavy crackdown by security forces, killing nearly 30 people.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi chaired an emergency national security council meeting and ordered Thursday's curfew in Baghdad. Only travellers to and from the airport, ambulances, some government employees and religious pilgrims were to be allowed on the streets.

Separately, police and medical sources said a couple who had been involved in the Basra protests last year were shot dead in their home late on Wednesday. Security sources said they had received threats from powerful militia groups in Basra last year.

Iraq has the world's fourth-largest reserves of oil, according to the International Monetary Fund, but much of its population of 40 million lives in poverty and without decent healthcare, education or power and water supply.