Reports estimated 14 demonstrators were killed in clashes with police, with more than 120 people injured.
Nationwide protests erupt across Iraq
Baghdad // Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad and other major cities yesterday, protesting against government failures to provide basic public services or tackle massive corruption and unemployment.
In the capital, demonstrators and security services clashed at the Jumhuriyah bridge, with riot police refusing to let protesters march to the high security Green Zone, where many key government offices are located.
Helicopters flew low over the crowds, which had swelled to some 5,000 by the afternoon. Security forces, deployed in strength across the city and enforcing a vehicle ban, used percussion grenades and live ammunition to disperse protesters. At least five people were reported killed in Baghdad, and others injured.
Hussein al Nahi, one of the protest organisers, accused government troops of using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators. He said some people in the crowd threw rocks and bottles at security officers in self defence, after they opened fire.
"We had no weapons, no rifles or bombs, we just wanted to peacefully march to the Green Zone to make our point to the government," he said. "But we were met by thousands of security personnel armed with sticks and electric cattle prods."
Mr al Nahi said he knew of three people who had been shot and killed, and said responsibility for their deaths lay with the government.
In demonstrations across Iraq, reports estimated 14 demonstrators were killed in clashes with police, with more than 120 people injured.
Heightened security measures, plus dire warnings by prime minister Nouri al Maliki that insurgents planned to bomb the protests meant that fewer demonstrators turned up than many had expected. The prospects of a massive rally had already been diminished after senior members of the Shiite clergy urged their followers not to take part, saying the government deserved six months to prove itself.
But Gharlib al Shabandar, an Iraqi writer and human rights activist who walked for three hours to take part in the march, said the authorities had to be made to listen to protesters' demands.
"Instead of fearing us and putting up roadblocks and imposing curfews, they should pay attention to what we are saying," he said. "Life in Baghdad now is painful, there are too many poor people without enough food to eat and they watch with burning hearts while the political classes get richer.
"Something must be done immediately, the government needs to know it must find an answer to this."
At least two MPs, including Sabah al Saadi, of Mr al Maliki's ruling alliance, did turn up at the protest, only to be chased away by jeering demonstrators who threw stones at them.
"The people have the right to press the government on issues like jobs and electricity, and we did not try to prevent their demonstration," he said. "But it must be peaceful, protesters should not make their point by spilling the blood of the poor."
In the northern city of Mosul, long one of Iraq's most dangerous places, demonstrators and security forces fought after protesters set fire to a government building, with three people believed to have been killed in the violence.
A local council office was also set ablaze in Hawija, a small town south of Kirkuk renowned for anti-government militancy. Two people were killed and 22 injured in the resulting skirmishes, according to the Reuters news agency.
Clashes between security officers and some 4,000 protesters in the southern port city of Basra left 18 people injured. The provincial governor Shaltagh Abboud announced he would resign - one of the protesters' demands.
In Baghdad's Liberation Square, where the largest crowd gathered, protester Bakir al Meyarhi, vowed to continue demonstrating in the coming weeks and months. He held a banner saying, "I voted and I regret it", a reference to last March's national elections. Almost a year later, a full government has yet to be named, a result of political infighting that has alienated the public from their well-paid elected representatives.
"The politicians have been holding power for long enough and they have done nothing for the ordinary people," he said. "I'm hungry, I don't have enough food to give my family. I will stay here until the government and the prime minister respond and share the wealth and give us job opportunities."