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Protesters’ rage over ‘income and bread’ challenges Iraqi government

The streets of Baghdad were silent Tuesday after a week of peaceful protests -- against corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services -- turned deadly. More than 100 people were killed as Iraqi security forces and armed groups clashed with the demonstrations and protesters were shot. Amna Nawaz reports on the conditions that have led to the uprising.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Young people in Iraq have turned their country upside-down over the past week. They have taken to the streets, demanding better social services and more economic opportunities.

    Clashes with security forces have sometimes turned violent, and deadly, with many protesters killed. One question is who is doing the killing.

    Amna Nawaz examines why these protests are happening now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The streets of Baghdad were silent today, after a week of deadly protests that wracked the nation from the capital and beyond.

    Two hours south, in the Iraqi city of Najaf, grief-stricken families buried their loved ones.

  • Sabah (through translator):

    He is exactly like the other protesters. They shoot the innocent and the criminals together. People are protesting for income and bread. Look at the youth. Every day, they go out in thousands. What is the result?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    More than 100 people have been killed in the worst violence since the defeat of the Islamic State two years ago. But this wasn't the result of insurgency or terrorism.

    What started as peaceful protests last week, demanding an end to rampant corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services, violently shifted into clashes with security forces and armed groups. In response, the Iraqi government pledged to add public sector jobs, and today approved a grant for employment development. But it may not be enough.

    Protesters pin the blame on corrupt leaders they say don't represent them. Despite the country's oil wealth, much of Iraq's 40 million people live in dire conditions.

  • Protester (through translator):

    We went out protesting because we are in pain and suffering. There is no electricity, no jobs, and people are dying of starvation. People are sick. It is a curse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Analysts say the government's dismissal of a widely respected Iraqi general, Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, helped set off the protests. Al-Saadi was key to the anti-ISIS fight.

    Leaders of two major political parties, including one led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have called for the government to resign. Back in 2016, al-Sadr inspired widespread protests in Iraq. Last fall, Iraqis in the southern city of Basra took to the streets to protest corrupt leaders and a lack of basic services.

    But Laith Kubba, an adviser to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, said this round of protests are leaderless and apolitical.

  • Laith Kubba:

    For the younger generation, those who went into these protests, they were all born in a period where they know nothing about Saddam Hussein. They are less concerned about sectarian or national issues. They see the world through their Facebook and through their telephones, smartphones.

    They see how the rest of the world is living. And their questions are very, very simple. Iraq is a rich country. Why are we in such a mess?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Iraqi-born expert Abbas Khadim was in Baghdad for an economic conference last week. He said the factors that led to these protests are decades in the making.

  • Abbas Khadim:

    Iraq has been having war, turmoil and economic hardships ever since the 1980s. A depleted country witnessed the invasion of the United States and the change of government, and led to lack of security, terrorism, and another 15 years of hardship.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The uprising is the biggest political challenge for the prime minister since he assumed office last year. Last weekend, Iraq's Parliament speaker met with representatives of the protest movement in an attempt to calm the unrest.

    And Iraqi authorities lifted a days-long curfew and Internet blackout on Saturday. Now Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi said he was willing to respond to the protesters' demands. He promised jobs for graduates, but also said there was no magic solution for the country's problems.

  • Laith Kubba:

    In the short term, I think this will calm a lot of people. Of course, it doesn't solve the fundamentals of the challenges that are facing the government.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hundreds more protesters took to the streets of Baghdad's Sadr City district on Monday, demanding new jobs and denouncing the killings of protesters.

    Iraqi police responded in force, using live bullets and water cannons against the protesters. Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned the attacks on protesters.

  • Barham Salih (through translator):

    The government and the security forces reaffirm that there has been no orders to fire at protesters, and it has not been issued by the country and their instruments. Therefore, those who are committing these actions are criminals and outlaws.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Iraqi federal police warned last week that snipers separate from the security forces were shooting at protesters. But it is unclear if these snipers are rogue elements of the police or foreign agents.

  • Abbas Khadim:

    Knowing the nature of who is in charge right now, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi and the minister of interior, these are not people who are putting snipers on top of buildings to assassinate Iraqi protesters.

    So, that is definitely the work of terrorist groups or sleeping cells.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For now, the streets remain quiet, but the rage here may yet reignite, putting greater pressure on a government already on edge.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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