BAGHDAD - Tens of thousands of Iraqis protested in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square on Tuesday for a fifth day, angered by reports of security forces killing demonstrators in the city of Kerbala and the prime minister's refusal to call early elections.
It was the largest gathering in the capital since a second wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government and the ruling elite resumed on Friday. A populist cleric who helped install the premier called for his removal.
Security forces stationed on the nearby Jumhuriya bridge, lobbed tear gas at protesters in Tahrir Square who tried to break through to the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions.
"With life and blood we defend you Iraq," they chanted.
The crowd consisted mostly of young men, many draped in Iraqi flags. Surrounding streets brimmed with cars, taxis, motorcycles and tuk-tuks as more people made their way in.
Earlier, trade unions announced that they would call strikes, following the lead of lawyers and teachers.
The latest protest in Baghdad took place after a night of violence in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, where, according to medical and security sources, Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters and killed at least 18 people.
At least 865 people were wounded, the sources said.
Karbala's governor and police chief, Iraq's prime minister and the military all denied anyone was killed. But the security and medical sources said local authorities had been ordered to cover the deaths up.
The United Nations representative in Iraq condemned the violence and called for dialogue.
"The recent developments across many parts of Iraq, in particular in Karbala last night, are most alarming. Witness reports indicate that live fire was used against demonstrators, causing high numbers of casualties," the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said in a statement.
The death toll since the unrest started on Oct. 1 is now at least 250 people.
"We want the government gone. Our demand is not for Abdul Mahdi to resign, if he resigns, it's not enough. Parliament must go, the parties must go," protester Salah al Suweidi said in Tahrir Square.
"Yesterday we broke the curfew and stayed the night, we will do so again today, even if 10, 20, 100, 1,000 die. What happened in Kerbala will not be ignored, the blood of our brothers in Karbala and other provinces will not be in vain."
In southern Iraq, protesters blocked the entrance to Umm Qasr commodities port near Basra, slowing operations by around 80%, port employees and local officials said.
Hardship and corruption
The protests, driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption, have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq.
The country has suffered for decades under the rule of Saddam Hussein and U.N. sanctions, the 2003 U.S. invasion and civil war it unleashed, and the battle against Islamic State, which was declared won in 2017.
An OPEC member, it has vast oil wealth, but many Iraqis live in poverty or have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic health care and education. Most of the protesters are young men who above all want jobs.
Many Iraqis criticize a political elite they say is subservient to one or another of Baghdad's two main allies, the United States and Iran. These powers use Iraq as a proxy to pursue their struggle for regional influence, without concern for the needs of ordinary people, they say.
Despite promising reforms and ordering a broad reshuffle of the cabinet, Abdul Mahdi has struggled to address the demonstrators' complaints.
Populist Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who backs parliament's largest bloc and helped bring Abdul Mahdi's coalition government to power, invited his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri on Tuesday to help him oust the premier.
Sadr had asked Abdul Mahdi to call an early election but the premier refused, saying on Tuesday it would be quicker if Sadr agreed with his rival on a replacement.
Parliament passed measures on Monday aimed at placating the protesters but many said this was too little too late. These included reduced salaries for officials, formation of a committee to draft constitutional amendments, and the dissolution of all provincial and local councils outside the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region.
The root cause of grievances is the sectarian power-sharing system of governance introduced in Iraq after 2003, analysts and activists say.
After Saddam was ousted, many opposition groups returning from exile divided state positions among themselves after dismantling the civil service under the banner of "de-Ba'athification", or getting rid of Saddam's people.
This was replaced by sprawling patronage networks, not just within the new ruling Shi'ite majority political elites, but also in Kurdistan. Sunni elites eventually followed suit.
These elites exploited ethno-sectarian grievances. But Iraqis now are rejecting this system, even the Shi'ite majority who after 16 years of leading the government, still find themselves impoverished and undeserved.