BAGHDAD - At least four protesters were killed and more than 65 wounded on Thursday in clashes with Iraqi security forces who were trying to push them back to their main camp in central Baghdad, police and medical sources said.
The protests erupted in early October over economic hardship and endemic graft. The government responded with some measures such as handouts for the poor but the protesters are now demanding an overhaul of the entire political system.
After two days of relative calm, three protesters were killed early on Thursday after being struck in the head by tear gas canisters and a fourth person died in hospital from wounds from a stun bomb fired by security forces, the sources said.
The total death toll from the protests now exceeds 300. Security forces used live rounds, rubber bullets and fired tear gas canisters to disperse hundreds of people near Tahrir Square, epicenter of the protests, a Reuters cameraman said.
At least half of the wounded protesters had sustained injuries from live ammunition, police and medical sources said.
Others choked on tear gas or were struck by rubber bullets. Ambulances raced to evacuate those hurt or affected.
Protesters used old cabinets, empty petrol drums and steel sheeting to set up a barricade near Jumhuriya (Republic) Bridge.
"We're reinforcing in case the security forces make another push later," said Abbas, a teenage protester who was helping to set up the makeshift barrier.
Human Rights Watch accused Iraqi security forces of attacking medical crew workers who treated the protesters.
"Medics have become another victim of the state's excessive force," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a report released on Thursday.
Iraqi officials declined to comment on the HRW report.
Violence also flared anew in several locations in southern Iraq, where the protest campaign originally kicked off.
Late on Wednesday, protesters set fire to local officials' houses in the town of Gharraf, 25 km (15 miles) north of the southern city of Nassiriya, security sources said.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government has tried to quell the unrest with measures to help the poor and college graduates, but protesters are now demanding the departure of the entire ruling elite that took power after the U.S. invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Since putting down an insurgency by Islamic State in 2017, Iraq has enjoyed two years of comparative stability. But despite its oil wealth, many people live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education.