BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Monday ordered the police to replace the army in a heavily populated Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad where dozens of people were killed or wounded in weekend clashes stemming from anti-government protests, the military said.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi gave the order after a week of violence in Iraq left more than 100 dead and thousands wounded. Since Oct. 1, spontaneous rallies have erupted in Baghdad and a number of southern cities by Iraqis demanding jobs, better basic services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption. Security forces have responded with live ammunition and tear gas to quell the protests.
The unrest is the most serious challenge facing Iraq, two years after the victory against Islamic State militants. The chaos also comes at a critical time for the government, which has been caught in the middle of increasing tensions between Iran and the U.S. in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Monday’s order for withdrawing the army from Sadr City appears aimed at calming tensions in the sprawling neighborhood, where populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr enjoys wide support.
The army statement said excessive force was used in Sadr City, adding that officers and soldiers who “carried out these wrong acts” will be held accountable.
A day after the protests began, authorities imposed a curfew and blocked the internet to try to quell the unrest. The curfew, ignored by protesters, was lifted Saturday and the internet was restored after sunset Monday.
“Police forces have taken over security and deployed today in Sadr City to preserve the lives of citizens and protect protesters,” police commander Maj. Gen. Jaafar Battat said.
Hundreds gathered on side streets near Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the central Tahrir Square, which has been the destination of demonstrators, although authorities prevented them from reaching it.
Iraqi security officials said 14 protesters were killed and 62 wounded on Sunday, many of them in Sadr City.
Baghdad streets were relatively quiet Monday with no protesters seen outside. Tahrir Square looked more like an army barracks, with a heavy military and police presence making it difficult for protesters to reach the area.
“Because of the killings, the use of live bullets and the loss of large number of people, we did not protest today,” said Rasoul Saray, who took part in the demonstrations over the past week.
Protesters “will not be silent about our rights and the rights of the martyrs who were killed by the government,” he added.
An activist in Nasiriyah who goes by the name of Ali Iraq said the southern city, which saw some of Iraq’s worst clashes between protesters and security forces, was calm after a wave of arrests Sunday. He said plainclothes agents checked identity cards and went through cellphones, detaining those who had videos or photos of the protests.
Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged protesters and the security forces to end the violence while Abdul-Mahdi has called on the protesters to go home.
National security adviser Falih al-Fayadh vowed to fight any attempts to “bring down the Iraqi state,” adding that an ongoing investigation will determine who was behind the violence in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces.
“We will not let anyone meddle with the security of our people,” al-Fayadh said.
This version corrects the start of the protests to Oct. 1, not Oct. 2.