BAGHDAD - Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets on Friday to protest against corruption and a lack of basic services in an organised nationwide "Day of Rage" inspired by uprisings around the Arab world.
At least five people were killed and 49 wounded in clashes between protesters and security forces in several towns when demonstrators tried to storm government buildings and security personnel fired shots in the air to try to disperse them.
The Arab world has erupted in protests aimed at ousting long-standing rulers, holding free elections and improving basic services, but Iraqi rallies have focused more on gripes over essential needs and corruption.
In Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the crowd swelled to thousands. Military vehicles and security forces lined the streets around the square as demonstrators waved Iraqi flags and called for reforms. A vehicle curfew was in effect in the capital.
Some protesters pushed between concrete blast walls on the nearby Jumhuriya bridge leading to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone of government buildings and embassies, but the demonstration remained peaceful.
A security official at the square said security forces had been instructed to refrain from clashing with protesters.
"We are here for change to improve the situation of the country. The education system is bad. The health system is also bad. Services are going from bad to worse," said 27-year-old Lina Ali, part of a protest youth group on Facebook.
"There is no drinkable water, no electricity. Unemployment is growing, which can push the youth towards terrorist activities," she said.
Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion which ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, development in Iraq remains slow and there are shortages of food, water, electricity and jobs.
Frustration has been mounting in the war-torn state, which has vast oil reserves and the potential to be a major producer. 'Where's my share in the oil profits?' one banner read.
"Our demonstration is peaceful," Ali said as she stood in Tahrir Square carrying a bunch of flowers. "We want the government to hear our voices, the government that we chose. They should provide services for the people. Other countries are pushing their way for change, so why should we stay silent?"
In the southern oil hub of Basra, Governor Shaltagh Abboud said he would resign in response to protesters' demands, according to an Iraqi cabinet source.
Protests have been mounting in cities and towns around Iraq in recent weeks. Friday's protests were organised mainly through social networking site Facebook, echoing mass rallies mobilised by youth through social media across the region.
At least two people were killed and 22 injured in scuffles in the northern town of Hawija as protesters set fire to a local council building, a police source said, while six people were injured in the town of Sulaiman Pek, south of Kirkuk, according to a hospital source.
In Mosul, three people died and 15 were wounded in clashes, a police source said. In Falluja, four protesters and two soldiers were injured, a police source said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has affirmed the right of Iraqis to protest peacefully but on Thursday he advised them to stay away from Friday's demonstrations because of possible violence by al Qaeda and members of Saddam's banned Baath party.
A weakened but stubborn insurgency is still carrying out attacks in Iraq despite a big drop in overall violence since the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-7.
"Failure to respond to people's demands will lead to more demonstrations ... Maliki must fulfil all his promises," said 61-year-old Hussein Aati, who was among the protesters in Tahrir Square.
© 2016 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.