(BAGHDAD) — Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters Saturday, killing at least one and wounding more than 200 in the capital Baghdad and in the country’s south, police officials and a semi-official human rights commission said.
The largest protest took place in Baghdad, where tens of thousands of people gathered in and near a central square in defiance of a government crackdown that killed dozens over the past month.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been protesting, mostly in Baghdad and southern regions, since last month, demanding sweeping change to the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which they blame for widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry called on countries that issued statements urging Iraq’s government to respect the will of Iraqis, saying those states “should respect Iraq’s sovereignty and not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs.”
In the southern town of Umm Qasr, clashes between security forces and protesters injured 120 people, according to Iraq’s semi-official human rights commission.
The Iraqi High Commission For Human Rights said security forces fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse hundreds of protesters near the vital Umm Qasr port on the Persian Gulf on Saturday morning. The commission said many of the wounded were being treated in a hospital in the town.
In Baghdad, security forces fired tear gas at protesters who tried to cross to bridges over the Tigris River leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone that is home to the Iraqi government and several other embassies, including the U.S. mission.
One protester was killed and at least 88 were wounded in Baghdad, according to police and medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
“Down with the government, down with the regime and down with corrupt parties,” some of the protesters chanted in Baghdad.
On nearby Abu Nawas Street on the Tigris, protesters prevented authorities from closing it with a blast wall by confiscating the crane that was to be used to place the giant cement blocks.
Authorities had closed nearby Saadoun Street with blocks last month as it is a main road leading to Tahrir Square that has been the main protesting point in the capital since last month.
The weekslong protests in Iraq and similar demonstrations in Lebanon have been fueled by local grievances and mainly directed at the political elite, but they also pose a challenge to Iran, which closely backs both governments. An increasingly violent crackdown in Iraq has raised fears of a backlash by Iran and its heavily armed local allies.