By John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – 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 Islamic State 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.
The military said early on Monday it was withdrawing from Sadr city and handing over to police in an apparent effort to de-escalate tension there.
A Sadr City resident reached by phone told Reuters later on Monday that the streets were again calm after a night of riots. Local militiamen were coming to inspect damage and police were deployed around the district’s neighborhoods.
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 Shi’ite 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 Shi’ite religious parties that have dominated the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Abdul Mahdi has responded with proposals of incremental reforms, but these have failed to appease the protesters, who say the security forces are using snipers and live ammunition to protect the political class from popular anger.
It is the biggest wave of violence in the country since an insurgency by the Sunni Muslim Islamist group Islamic State was put down in the north in 2017, and the worst street unrest to hit the capital Baghdad in around a decade.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Abdul Mahdi in a phone call that he trusted the Iraqi forces and supported the Iraqi government in restoring security, a statement from the prime minister’s office said.
Abdul Mahdi said life had returned to normal, according to the statement.
The government has offered to spend more money on subsidized housing for the poor, stipends for the unemployed and training programs and loan initiatives for youth.
Iraqi authorities also said they would hold to account members of the security forces who “acted wrongly” in the crackdown on protests, state TV reported. The interior ministry denies government forces have shot directly at protesters.
The protesters demand the overhaul of what they say is an entire corrupt system and political class that has held the country back, despite unprecedented levels of security since the end of the war against IS.
Many protesters also accuse the parties in power of having close ties to Iran, the dominant Shi’ite power in the region. Iran has called for calm in Iraq.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted on Monday: “#Iran and #Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together… Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective.”
(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Timothy Heritage)