A man is lying dead or injured on the pavement beside a road leading into Tahrir Square in the centre of Baghdad.
Soldiers and police are running towards him, while Iraqi soldiers on the other side of the square are penning into a corner a group of a hundred or so protesters, some holding Iraqi flags, and chanting “Peaceful” and “For Iraq”.
The protesters are more numerous than first appears because they have broken up into groups that are permanently on the move. There is the sharp crack of automatic rifle fire, with all the shots being supposedly fired into the air.
Black smoke is rising from burning tyres on one road and others are blocked off by police in their green and yellow cars, along with regular soldiers in uniform and black-clad member of the Counter Terrorism Service.
As night falls the situation deteriorates.
“At least eight or 10 districts in Baghdad have sealed themselves off with barricades and burning tyres,” says one informant. Groups of youths are trying to block the motorways as the authorities struggle to retain control.
If the Iraqi government had made a plan at the beginning of this week to turn sparsely attended demonstrations against corruption and lack of jobs into a mass movement, then it is doing very nicely.
Protesters walking towards the Green Zone, the location of much of the government, were met on Tuesday night with hot water jets, teargas, rubber bullets and live fire.
The government claims that only two people were killed and several hundred injured, though hospital doctors, who treated the injured, say that the real figure is much higher.
“We were caught by surprise by the toughness of the security services’ response to a peaceful demonstration,” says Haider, who trained as lawyer and has helped organise the demonstrations against joblessness – particularly among graduates of whom 307,000 are unemployed – for the last three months.
The protests had not been getting much traction until the police and army violently attacked protesters on Tuesday, saying that they were under orders to defend the Green Zone at all costs.
Haider says that the committees and NGOs organising the demonstrations want to stage a big one on Friday 4 October.
On Tuesday they had tried to call off the protest at 7pm because it was getting out of their control and a Turkish restaurant had been burned down, he adds.
The overreaction by the government is continuing: on Wednesday heavily armed troops in black ski masks were milling about near Tahrir Square and giving the impression that they were there to repel a foreign invasion force. All the airline offices on Sadoon Street are closed, as are the clinics in Al Nidal Street.
The traffic is very limited by Baghdad standards and there are not many pedestrians to be seen. Municipal workers had cleaned up Tahrir Square overnight, spraying the street with water while bulldozers removed rubbish. As they did so, a car was distributing water to protesters and soldiers alike.
“We are not against you, you are our brothers,” one activist told a soldier as he offered him a cold bottle of water.
In Zaafaraniya, southeast of Baghdad, at least five people were treated for shortness of breath after police used teargas to break up a small protest. Police also used teargas in al-Shaab, north of Baghdad. Security officials said five people were arrested in al-Shaab and three in Zaafaraniya.
The protests are the most serious challenge against Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government since it was formed nearly a year ago. It had got through the height of the summer, when the shortage of electricity for air conditioning causes intense popular rage, without major protests along the lines of those that paralysed Basra in 2018 and led to the fall of the previous prime minister.
The demonstrations and marches had been tame and their leaders wanted to avoid being identified with any political party. The followers of the populist nationalist cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, were asked not to take part. Using social media to coordinate, people rallied against corruption and lack of basic services, with university students in particular complaining that their academic credentials did not help them get jobs.
Similar protests and confrontations took place in other provinces, including in the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah in the south. In Nasiriyah, one protester was killed and around 20 people wounded, according to hospital officials.
What is significant here is that all the protests are in Shia provinces, which is important in a country that has a Shia majority and a predominantly Shia government.
The problem is that the government is corrupt at every level and the allocation of jobs in ministries – and jobs within them – depends on party allegiance and religious affiliation. This system has gelled since the new government system was introduced after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and will be near impossible to reform.