Heavy clashes erupted between protesters and security forces in Baghdad where thousands of protesters gathered in defiance of a plea by the prime minister to stand down.

Anti-government protesters stand on barriers set by Iraqi security forces to close a bridge leading to the Green Zone government areas during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 4, 2019.
Anti-government protesters stand on barriers set by Iraqi security forces to close a bridge leading to the Green Zone government areas during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 4, 2019. (AP)

At least five people were killed as Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters in Baghdad on Monday, a Reuters witness said, as thousands continued to gather in the largest wave of anti-government protests for decades.

A Reuters witness saw one man shot dead, his body carried away by fellow protesters, when security forces opened fire with live rounds on demonstrators near Baghdad's Ahrar bridge.

A Reuters cameraman saw at least four others get killed.

However, security and medical sources put the toll at one dead and 22 wounded, adding that rubber bullets and tear gas, not live ammunition, were used. The Interior Ministry could not be immediately reached for comment.

More than 250 Iraqis have been killed in demonstrations since the start of October against a government they see as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests.

Monday's deaths were in addition to three protesters killed late on Sunday when security forces who opened fire on a crowd trying to storm the Iranian consulate in the Shia Muslim holy city of Karbala, security and medical sources said.

Security forces in Baghdad had refrained from using live fire in recent days. Nearly 150 people were killed between Oct. 1-7, with 70 percent of deaths resulting from bullets to the head or chest, a government committee report has found.

Baghdad-based journalist Ammar Karim has more.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi appealed to protesters on Sunday night to suspend their movement, which he said had achieved its goals and was hurting the economy.

The premier has said he is willing to resign if politicians agree on a replacement, and has promised a number of reforms. But protesters say that is not enough and that the entire political class needs to go.

The political class is seen by many as subservient to one or other of Baghdad's main allies, the United States and Iran, foes who use Iraq as a proxy in a struggle for regional influence.

Iraqis arrested for backing protests on Facebook - HRW

Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces in a western province unaffected by anti-government protests are detaining people for posting messages of solidarity with the rallies, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

At least two people have been arrested and a third interrogated in Anbar province, a Sunni-majority desert region in the country's west, after Facebook posts.

Residents of western Iraq have told AFP and HRW they were remaining quiet of out of fear of being accused of being "terrorists" or backers of Saddam Hussein.

But security forces there appear to be monitoring social media accounts, HRW said on Monday.

"Despite years of terrible conflict, many Iraqis have felt free to speak out on political issues," said HRW's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

"But these cases mark a disturbing change, if you contrast these men's entirely peaceful political statements with the completely inappropriate response by the Anbar authorities."

The watchdog said Anbar's security forces had detained three men within hours of their posts in support of the protests, which erupted on October 1.

Two of them were later released, while a fourth man had gone into hiding after being warned he was wanted for his Facebook posts.

Internet blackout

Shortly after protests first broke out, Iraqi authorities imposed a total internet blackout for about two weeks.

They later banned social media sites including Facebook and popular messaging app WhatsApp, but Iraqis are widely using virtual private networks (VPN) to continue accessing them.

Security forces and unidentified assailants have also arrested hundreds of demonstrators in Baghdad and the south including from hospitals, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International.

Most were later released but some remain missing, including medic Saba al Mahdawi, who was abducted on Saturday night after returning from a protest.

Sunday's protests

Dozens of Iraqi protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in the Shia holy city of Karbala on Sunday, scaling the concrete barriers ringing the building, bringing down an Iranian flag and replacing it with the Iraqi flag, eyewitnesses said.

Iraqi security officials said three protesters were shot and killed while 19 were wounded. Seven policemen were also wounded, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Security forces fired in the air to disperse the protesters who threw stones and burned tires around the building on a street corner in Karbala south of Baghdad.  

The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Against Iraq's elite and Shia militias

The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that Iraqis accuse of pillaging the country's wealth while the country grows poorer. 

But protesters have also directed their rage at neighbouring Iran and the powerful Iraqi Shia militias tied to it.

The anti-government protests in Karbala, Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq have often turned violent, with security forces opening fire and protesters torching government buildings and headquarters of Iran-backed militias. 

The protests have grown and demonstrators are now calling for sweeping changes, not just the government's resignation.

Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square and across southern Iraq in recent days, calling for the overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion. 

Protesters have also taken over a large tower in the square that was abandoned after it was damaged in the war.

Thousands of students have skipped classes to take part in the street rallies, blaming the political elite for widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.

PM calls for returning to 'normal'

Iraq's prime minister on Sunday called on anti-government protesters to reopen roads saying "it's time for life to return to normal," after a month of massive rallies demanding wide-ranging political change.

In a statement, Prime Minister Mahdi called for markets, factories, schools and universities to reopen after days of protests in the capital and across the mostly Shia south. He said the threat to oil facilities and the closure of roads had cost the country "billions" of dollars and contributed to price increases that affect everyone.

Earlier Sunday, protesters blocked roads around their main protest site with burning tires and barbed wire, unfurling a banner at one roadblock reading: "Roads closed by order of the people." They appeared to be borrowing a tactic from Lebanon, where similar anti-government demonstrations have been underway since October 17, and have repeatedly blocked major roads in order to ramp up pressure on authorities.

Since the protests restarted on October 25 after a brief hiatus, there have been near-continuous clashes on two bridges leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the headquarters of the government and home to several foreign embassies.

In his statement, Abdul Mahdi differentiated between peaceful protesters, who he said had turned the demonstrations into "popular festivals" that bring the nation together, and "outlaws" who he said had used the demonstrators as "human shields" while attacking security forces. The prime minister had met with top security officials late Saturday.

Turmoil in politics

Last week, President Barham Salih said Abdul Mahdi is willing to resign once political leaders agree on a replacement. He also called for a new election law and said he would approve early elections once it is enacted. 

In a meeting with the heads of trade unions on Sunday, Salih said the new election law would be submitted to parliament this week.

Abdul Mahdi's statement did not say anything about resigning, and even if the new electoral law is quickly approved, the process of holding elections and forming a new government could take several months. 

Meanwhile, the protests have only grown since the president's initial announcement.

On Sunday, a 24-year-old veterinary student attended the demonstrations in Baghdad carrying a cat, with a sign around its neck reading "I am coming to demand my rights." 

The student, who did not give her name for fear of repercussions, joked that she was willing to treat the country's politicians for free.

Iraq is governed by a sectarian political system that distributes power and high offices among the Shia majority, Sunnis and Kurds. 

It holds regular elections, but they are dominated by sectarian religious parties, many of which have close ties to Iran. 

The political parties divvy up ministries and then hand out jobs to their supporters, contributing to a bloated public sector that is unable to provide reliable services.

More than 15 years after the US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, Baghdad and other cities still see frequent power cuts, the tap water is undrinkable and public infrastructure is crumbling. 

Few Iraqis have seen any benefit from the country's oil wealth, despite it being an OPEC member with the fourth-largest proven reserves in the world.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies