BASRA: Two more demonstrators were killed in southern Iraq, officials said, as protests against unemployment spread on Saturday from the port city of Basra to other parts of the country including Baghdad.
Authorities scrambled to rein in days of unrest by declaring a curfew in Basra province, while Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced fresh funds and promises of investment for the southern region.
The deaths overnight in Maysan province on the border with Iran brought to three the number of demonstrators killed since the protests erupted Sunday in neighbouring Basra.
A spokesperson for the Maysan health authorities, Ahmad al Kanani, said the pair died from gunshot wounds in the provincial capital Amarah.
It was not clear who killed them but Kanani said there had been “indiscriminate gunfire” in the city.
Dozens more have been wounded in the past week, including security forces, according to medical sources.
The unrest comes as Iraq struggles to rebuild after a devastating three-year war against Islamic State group militants, and with the country in political limbo following May elections.
The demonstrations over unemployment, the rising cost of living and a lack of basic services escalated after a protester was killed by security forces on Sunday in Basra.
Demonstrators set tyres ablaze to block roads and tried to storm government installations.
On Friday Abadi flew to Basra from Brussels, where he had attended a NATO summit, to try to restore calm.
But even as he met the governor of the oil-rich province and energy chiefs, protesters took to the streets of Basra city as well as other parts of the province and the unrest spread further afield.
Overnight Friday to Saturday in Maysan, several protests were held outside the headquarters of various political parties–including Abadi’s Dawa Party–and some were set on fire, Iraqi media reported.
A small protest also took place after midnight in the northern Baghdad district of Al Shula amid a heavy deployment of security forces, a security source told AFP.
The source said a few protesters were still out on the streets of Al Shula on Saturday morning, adding that the demonstration was peaceful.
Unidentified calls were also posted on social media for massive demonstrations to take place on Saturday in Baghdad.
Some urged demonstrators to head for the fortified Green Zone, an area out of bounds for most Iraqis where the country’s key institutions and embassies, including the US and British missions, are located.
On Saturday dozens of protesters rallied in different parts of Basra, including at the West Qurna and Majnoon oil fields west of the city, an AFP correspondent said.
Protesters gathered at Basra’s Umm Qasr port and outside the governor’s office in the centre of the city.
A group of demonstrators also staged a brief protest at the Safwan border crossing with neighbouring Kuwait.
On Saturday protesters in the city of Basra tried to set fire to the office of the Iranian-supported Badr organisation, setting off clashes with security forces.
After that incident the authorities announced an overnight curfew across the whole province.
Abadi for his part on Saturday evening announced investment worth $3 billion (2.6 billion euros) for Basra province, as well as pledges to spend on housing, schools and services.
Shiite clerics, including Moqtada Sadr whose populist coalition triumphed in May elections, have backed the protesters but urged them to refrain from violence.
Sadr has sought to form a broad coalition with rivals including Abadi, but the process has been complicated by the supreme court ordering manual recounts in areas where the election was disputed.
After visiting Basra, the prime minister chaired a security cabinet meeting in Baghdad, his office said in a statement accusing ‘infiltrators’ of feeding on “peaceful protests to attack public and private property”.
“Our forces will take all the necessary measures to counter those people,” the statement said.
Officially, 10.8% of Iraqis are jobless, while youth unemployment is twice as high in a country where 60% of the population is aged under 24.