Iraq’s capital Baghdad was paralysed on Sunday as tens of thousands of demonstrators burned tyres and blocked thoroughfares in an escalation of major anti-government protests.
Crowds obstructed roads with wooden pallets, barbed wire and by burning old furniture, with large numbers gathering in the central Tahrir Square and others occupying a bridge in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Some held up a banner reading “Roads closed by order of the people" amid calls for an end to the political system established in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.
More than 250 people have been killed since the demonstrations began a month ago as security forces have fired live rounds at protesters as well as tear gas and rubber bullets.
A mid-October government-led enquiry into security forces’ actions alleged excessive force was used. Since that report was released, another 100 people have died.
On Saturday Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi underscored the need to preserve the safety of protesters in a meeting with security officials.
The same day, unknown assailants abducted Siba al-Mahdawi, an activist and physician who had offered medical care to protesters.
The semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights called on the government and security forces to reveal Ms al-Mahdawi’s location, but no more is known of her whereabouts.
Despite Ms al-Mahdawi’s disappearance and rising levels of violence, demonstrators have grown bolder, criticising not just their own leaders and political system, but the Iranian forces that underpin this country.
In unprecedented displays of anti-Iran sentiment, demonstrators chanted “Out, out, Iran! Baghdad will stay free!” Footage posted online showed Iraqis hitting pictures of the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Qassem Soleimani with their shoes, a scathing insult in Arab culture.
The vast majority of demonstrators are young, as is much of the Iraqi population, which is characterised by a youth bulge.
Their lot is largely bleak. Despite Iraq’s petroleum wealth and the lavish spending of the country’s political elite, young Iraqis have a one in five chance of living below the poverty line. One in four young people is unemployed.
Analysts believe that these young people are unlikely to compromise with the government as they seek the dismantling of the political system installed after the US-led invasion, which is rife with corruption and lacks accountability.
“Concessions won’t do it this time. The only thing that will change the situation is true revolution, but I don’t think we are there yet,” said Iraq researcher Abdullah Hawez.
“The protesters want radical change, but the ruling class would lose everything if such change came to pass. What’s being offered is some sort of symbolic change or early elections, but recent years have shown that elections are not a solution in Iraq.”