Anti-government protesters crossed a major bridge in Baghdad on Monday, approaching the prime minister's office and the headquarters of Iraq's state-run TV, as security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas, killing at least five demonstrators and wounding dozens.
The protesters hurled rocks and set tires and dumpsters ablaze, sending clouds of black smoke into the air. Security forces flooded into the area to protect government buildings, and gunfire echoed through the streets.
Dozens of motorized rickshaws raced back and forth, ferrying the wounded to first aid stations at the main protest site in Tahrir Square.
It was the first time live ammunition was fired at Baghdad demonstrators since protests resumed on October 24, following a period in which riot police had switched to use tear gas amid accusations of "excessive force".
For days, the protesters have been trying to cross the Tigris River to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered. Security forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets to push them back from barricades on the Al-Joumhouriyah and Al-Sanak Bridges, but they managed to break through on the Al-Ahrar Bridge farther north.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have demonstrated in central Baghdad and across mostly Shiite southern Iraq since October 25, calling for the overthrow of the government and sweeping political change. The protests are fueled by anger at widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
Some 270 people have lost their lives since the anti-government rallies broke out on October 1, according to an AFP count, but officials have stopped providing precise casualty numbers.
The latest clashes came a day after Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called on the protesters to reopen streets and for life to return to normal. His office is just outside the Green Zone.
Police and hospital officials said that at least five demonstrators and a member of the security forces were killed and that 60 people were wounded. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
On Sunday night, Iraqi security forces shot and killed four protesters and wounded 19 in dispersing a violent demonstration outside the Iranian consulate in the city of Karbala, police officials said. Seven policemen were also wounded, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The protesters have increasingly directed their anger at Iran, which has close ties to the government, Shiite political factions and paramilitary groups.
During the violence in Karbala, dozens of Iraqi protesters set tires ablaze. They scaled the concrete barriers ringing the consulate as others lobbed firebombs over the walls. They tried to bring down the Iranian flag and replace it with the Iraqi one but could not reach it. They then placed an Iraqi flag on the wall.
"They intend to kill, not disperse," said one young protester about Iraqi forces guarding the mission.
"My son went out to protest with the rest of the young Iraqi men and got shot once in the shoulder and a second time in the head. He was 20," said Wissam Shaker.
Another relative of a casualty, who declined to give his name, said the protesters had been unarmed.
"If the governor comes out and says these protesters had grenades or weapons, he's lying! They had nothing but stones while security forces fired bullets," he said.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on the consulate, saying the security of diplomatic missions is a "red line that should not be crossed." But protesters returned to the consulate late Monday.
Undeterred by the latest violence, protesters pushed on Monday with civil disobedience tactics they have increasingly adopted over the past week, including sit-ins, road closures and strikes.
The national teachers' syndicate shut down schools across the country, and other trade unions later joined in.
Government offices in more than a half-dozen southern cities have been either stormed or closed for lack of staff, with demonstrators hanging banners reading "Closed by order of the people" in front of the buildings.
Others have erected checkpoints to stop security forces or imposed curfews on officials and police, with roads cut in Samawa and protests in Nasiriyah and Hillah on Monday.
Abdul Mahdi has announced hiring drives and increased social welfare, while President Barham Salih has proposed early elections after a new voting law is agreed.
But protesters have demanded an overhaul of the entrenched political class and deep-rooted change to end rampant corruption they charge is holding the country back.
Despite Iraq being OPEC's second-largest crude producer, one in five Iraqis live below the poverty line and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent.