At least 15 people were killed in clashes between Iraqi security forces and protesters overnight in Baghdad's Sadr City district as violence from a week-long nationwide uprising swept through the vast, poor swathe of the capital for the first time. At least 110 people have been killed across Iraq in the worst wave of violence since the defeat of the Daesh terrorist group nearly two years ago, with protesters demanding the removal of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and a government they accuse of corruption.
The arrival of the violence in Sadr City on Sunday night poses a new security challenge for the authorities. Unrest is historically difficult to put down in the volatile district, where about a third of Baghdad's 8 million people live in narrow alleys, many with little access to electricity, water and jobs. Sadr City is also a bastion of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr who has thrown his weight behind the protests by calling on Abdul Mahdi's government to resign.
The protests began spontaneously last week in Baghdad and across southern cities, without public support from any major political faction in Iraq. They have since escalated and grown more violent, spreading from cities in the south to other areas, mainly populated by members of the Shiite majority whose parties hold political power but say their communities have been neglected for decades. The unrest poses an unprecedented challenge for Abdul Mahdi, who took office last year as a consensus candidate of powerful Shiite religious parties that have dominated the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The embattled PM has accused "saboteurs" of infiltrating the protests, a claim echoed by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful network of mostly-Shiite, pro-Iran paramilitary units. "We know who stands behind these protests. The plan to bring down the regime has failed," its chief Faleh al-Fayyadh told journalists in Baghdad.
The military said yesterday morning it was withdrawing from Sadr city and handing over to police in an apparent effort to de-escalate tension there. It admitted for the first time it had used "excessive force" in nearly a week of deadly protests, as paramilitary units said they were ready to back the government. "Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts," the military said. It said Prime Minister Mahdi had ordered those forces to be replaced with federal police units and the intelligence services to open an investigation into the incident. It is the biggest wave of violence in the country since an insurgency by Daesh was put down in the north in 2017, and the worst street unrest to hit the capital Baghdad in around a decade.