BAGHDAD — Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to push back protesters who broke into the fortified Green Zone on Friday, in a sharp escalation of unrest that has gripped the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s military imposed a curfew across Baghdad after the protesters breached the secured area, which is home to the parliament and other government buildings. After protesters broke through — reaching the office of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — security forces could be seen advancing across the bridges that lead out of the Green Zone and firing tear gas, though it was not clear whether they were aiming at the crowd.
Fadhil al-Ruwaili, a member of the health committee on Baghdad’s provincial council, said he didn’t have details on any deaths. Some of the protesters were injured with bullets and by inhaling tear gas, he said. Others were clubbed with batons.
“They have opened fire on unarmed civilians, and this is against the constitution and against the law,” Ruwaili said.
The protesters are largely supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has ratcheted up political tension in the country by calling for a new technocratic government and urging his followers to the street. They managed to storm the Green Zone and ransack parliament late last month, but the incident was largely peaceful. However, Abadi, fighting for political survival, has enacted new security measures in an attempt to not let them through again.
Tear gas canisters flew through the air and a constant crack of gunfire rang out, as forces mandated with ensuring security in the Green Zone pushed protesters back over bridges leading to the area. Federal police forces who are more sympathetic toward the protesters had earlier let them cross.
“We were holding roses and flags,” said Haider Hashm, 40, sitting on the curb and struggling to breathe because of the effects of tear gas. “While we were giving them roses, they gave us tear gas and bullets.”
Witnesses also said security forces fired live ammunition.
In a statement, Sadr said that the government had used tear gas and live fire on “unarmed protesters.”
“Be patient heroic Iraqi people, your peaceful revolution will end with victory,” he said.
More than 250 were injured, according to Ali Mohsen al-Tamimi, the governor of Baghdad, who is with Sadr’s party. Some were critically injured by live ammunition, he said.
After the first breach, Abadi replaced the head of security for the Green Zone and said he would not allow a similar incident, which resulted in lawmakers being assaulted as they tried to flee parliament. But he is no closer to meeting the demands of the street and has not managed to gather enough lawmakers for parliament to reconvene, necessary in order to legislate any changes.
Meanwhile, anger is growing. Sadr City, a stronghold for Sadr’s supporters, was struck Wednesday by the second large market bombing by the Islamic State in a week, and many Iraqis blamed the government for failing to protect them. The families of the dead were among the protesters who gathered on Friday.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.