Protesters retook control of half of Ahrar Bridge, which leads to the other side of the Tigris River near the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government.

Protesters stage a sit-in on barriers on the Ahrar Bridge, in Baghdad, Iraq, November 17, 2019.
Protesters stage a sit-in on barriers on the Ahrar Bridge, in Baghdad, Iraq, November 17, 2019. (Khalid Mohammed / AP)

An anti-government protester in Iraq was killed by a direct hit to the head from a tear gas canister amid fresh clashes on a strategic Baghdad bridge, security and medical officials said.

At least 32 others were wounded in violent clashes with security forces, just hours after protesters retook control of half of Ahrar Bridge. The protesters now hold three bridges spanning the Tigris River toward the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government. Security forces had deployed Sunday on the other side of the bridge and erected concrete barriers to keep protesters from pushing into Green Zone.

Two Katyusha rockets also fell in the vicinity of the Green Zone on Sunday, but caused no casualties. One hit the Tigris River and the other fell on an empty soccer stadium, security officials said. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Escalating protests

At least 320 have been killed and thousands wounded since the unrest in the capital and the mostly Shia southern provinces began on Oct. 1. Protesters have taken to the streets in the tens of thousands over what they say is widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services despite the country’s oil wealth.

On Sunday, thousands came out across the country after activists called for a general strike. The strike bolstered the weeks-long movement demanding a government overhaul.

“There will be no offices open until the last corrupt person is removed” one protester said, declining to be identified for security reasons. “Only then we will pull out from here.”

Sit-ins have become the go-to tactic for the rallies that erupted in early October in rage over corruption, a lack of jobs and an out-of-touch political class.

Anti-government demonstrators react to tear gas fired by Iraqi riot police during clashes in al Rashid Street, Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 17, 2019.
Anti-government demonstrators react to tear gas fired by Iraqi riot police during clashes in al Rashid Street, Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 17, 2019. (Hadi Mizban / AP)

Mass mobilisation

In the southern port city of Basra and in cities like Nasiriyah, Amara and Kut, protesters set tires ablaze to close off roads, keeping employees from reaching their work places. Schools, universities and other institutions closed for the day.

In parts of Baghdad, particularly the sprawling Sadr City neighbourhood, protesters sat in the middle of the streets to prevent employees from getting to their workplaces.

Protesters cut roads in the oil-rich port city of Basra by burning tyres and in Hillah, south of Baghdad, students and other activists massed in front of the provincial headquarters.

"We'll keep up our protest and general strike with all Iraqis until we force the government to resign," said Hassaan al Tufan, a lawyer and activist.

In Baghdad hundreds of students skipped class to gather in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the beating heart of the protest movement.

"No politics, no parties, this is a student awakening!" read one banner carried by young Iraqis with rucksacks.

They waved the Iraqi tricolour, marching north from Tahrir to the nearby Khallani Square.

Iraqi riot police fire tear gas while blocking al Rashid Street to prevent anti-government protesters from re-grouping in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 17, 2019.
Iraqi riot police fire tear gas while blocking al Rashid Street to prevent anti-government protesters from re-grouping in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 17, 2019. (Hadi Mizban / AP)

Fighting for control

Meanwhile, protesters on Sunday were trying to expand their presence in Baghdad further after seizing control of a strategic central square. Protesters eventually reached the Ahrar bridge, after seizing the Sanak bridge and central Khilani Square as they press on to try to get to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of government.

Two people were wounded when security forces fired tear gas canisters in Rasheed Street in renewed confrontations Sunday.

Iraqi security forces withdrew from Khilani Square and the Sanak bridge, after firing live rounds and tear gas the previous day against protesters trying to tear down a concrete barrier blocking entry to the square.

As demonstrators made their way onto Sanak Bridge, they immediately set up tents on a first segment of the bridge, facing off against riot police stationed behind two layers of thick concrete blast walls.

Just beyond those barriers was the embassy of neighbouring Iran, which protesters have criticised for propping up the government they want to bring down.

Protesters also took control of a five-story parking garage adjacent to the bridge, giving them a bird’s eye view over the Green Zone and the street below, mirroring tactics employed in Tahrir Square, where they occupied an iconic 14-story Saddam Hussein-era building that has become a reference point for demonstrators.

"We students are here to help the other protesters, and we won't retreat a single step," said a teenager wearing thick black-framed glasses.

Speaking anonymously because he said he had been threatened for his involvement in the anti-government movement, he said hundreds of teenagers had skipped class.

Nearby, a volunteer medic in plastic surgeons' gloves urged labourers across Iraq to join the strike.

"Everyone should have a time set aside to take part in the protest," he said.

Riot police close al Rashid St. during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019.
Riot police close al Rashid St. during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. (Hadi Mizban / AP)

Nominal reforms

The government has proposed a laundry list of reforms in recent weeks but demonstrators have brushed them off as too little, too late in a country ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

"These steps, these reforms are just an opiate for the masses. Nothing more, nothing less," another protester said on Sunday.

Pointing across the river to the area where parliament, the premier's office and other key buildings are, he insisted the protesters wanted "new faces."

"There are so many capable young people in Iraq who are deprived -- and unfortunately those are the guys that rule us?" he said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies