Demonstration against corruption and economic hardship was met with rubber bullets and teargas by police

At least 40 people were killed and dozens injured in Baghdad as police fired rubber bullets and teargas canisters in an attempt to disperse a protest on the streets of the Iraqi capital amid unrest sweeping the country.

Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad on Friday morning to begin the march to the citys fortified Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are located, but were blocked by police on the al-Jumhuriya bridge.

The demonstrators, protesting against corruption and economic hardship, pushed back but were met with volleys of teargas, some canisters exploding in the air and others whooshing to a white arch in the middle of the crowd.

Unlike in previous demonstrations the police did not use live ammunition. Medics said two protesters were killed when they were hit by teargas canisters.

Dozens of ambulances and rickshaws ferried young men suffocating or hit by the canisters. Volunteers distributed water and washed faces with cola or milk, while others prepared sandwiches and lunch.

Iraqi protesters run for cover. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Violent unrest erupted in Baghdad in early October, spreading to southern cities, and has posed the biggest challenge to the prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, since he took office.

Many Iraqis live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, education and healthcare. But Abdul-Mahdi has been unable to address the growing discontent with promises of reform. In an address on Thursday night he warned that a collapse of the government would drag Iraq further into turmoil.

On Friday protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah broke into the provincial government building and set it on fire, police said, while six protesters were wounded in the southern city of Amara in the Maysan district, when guards at the local office of Shia militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq opened fire.

Protesters in Baghdad, who had organised through social media, also directed their anger against Iran, Iraqs powerful neighbour. The crowd chanted Iran out, out and ridiculed Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general seen as the godfather of the current government.

Many were draped in Iraqi flags as they crossed the bridge, declaring our soul, our blood, we sacrifice for you Iraq. One policeman who was marching with the protesters picked up a teargas canister and threw it back, urging them not to be scared.

They have eaten away at the country like cancer, said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing in the direction of the government buildings in the Green Zone. They are all corrupt thieves, he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

The demonstrations are similar to those that have engulfed Lebanon in recent days, in that they are economically driven, largely leaderless and spontaneous against what is seen as a sectarian-based system and a corrupt political class driving the two countries to the brink of economic collapse.

Earlier this month, violence spread across Iraq and left 149 protesters dead. A government-appointed inquiry determined that security forces had used excessive force and recommended the firing of security chiefs in Baghdad and the south. Eight members of the security forces were also killed.

Iraqs most senior Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed in his Friday prayers to the protesters and security forces to avoid violence and urged the former to abstain from attacking security forces or public property.

The current round of protests has been endorsed by his chief rival, the nationalist Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular support base and the largest number of seats in parliament.



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