Iraqi security forces imposed a round-the-clock curfew in Baghdad and fired live rounds and tear gas on Thursday to disperse anti-government protests that have gripped the country since earlier this week, killing 21 people so far.
In a desperate attempt to quell the demonstrations, which were spontaneous and mostly spurred by woes over deteriorating economy and lack of jobs and services, authorities have cut internet access across much of Iraq.
Before dawn, explosions were heard inside Baghdad s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government offices and foreign embassies. The U.S.-led coalition said an investigation is underway, adding that no coalition forces or assets were hit.
So far, at least 21 people have been reported killed and hundreds have been wounded since the violence and clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstrators first erupted on Tuesday.
Twelve people were killed late Wednesday in the southern cities of Nasriyah, Kut, and Amara. The dead were protesters and one policeman, according to security officials.
Iraq s state news agency said Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi invited representatives of the protesters to come to the parliament building to discuss their demands.
The protests, concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq are mostly spontaneous and without political leadership, staged by disenchanted youth demanding jobs, improved services, such as electricity and water, and an end to Iraq s endemic corruption.
They have organized the protests on social media and have gradually escalated their demands and now want the government to resign. No political party has so far joined the campaign.
The demonstrations and the unrest are the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi s year-old government, which has been caught in the middle of U.S.-Iran tensions in the Middle East. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Also Thursday, Iraq s foreign ministry summoned Iran s ambassador to Baghdad to denounce his threat that Tehran would retaliate to an American attack anywhere in the world, including in Iraq. A ministry statement said Iraqi official Abdul-Karim Hashem told Iran s envoy, Iraj Masjedi, that American troops are in Iraq and the request of the Iraqi government and that Iraq will not accept becoming an arena for international conflicts.
Masjedi recently told Iraq s Dijla TV that if the Americans attack Iran, Tehran ``will strike back anywhere, including (in) Iraq."
The Baghdad curfew was announced early Thursday following a meeting of Iraq s top leaders to discuss anti-government protests that have engulfed the country.
Authorities say it is meant to ``protect general peace" and protesters from ``infiltrators" who committed attacks against security forces and public property. It excludes travelers to and from the Baghdad airport and Iraqi Airways said flights were operating as scheduled.
Baghdad s main streets were largely deserted Thursday morning. In central Tahrir Square, hundreds of young protesters were gathered, and police fired tear gas canisters every now and then.
Iraqi army vehicles were also seen moving in the streets of the capital and in some areas, they blocked side roads with barbed wire.
``Whether there is curfew or not we are going to continue," shouted one protester in Tahrir Square.
When the demonstrators tried to reach a nearby bridge that leads to the Green Zone on Thursday morning, Iraqi security forces started shooting above the crowd from automatic rifles and also fired tear gas, according to an Associated Press cameraman at the scene.
NetBlocks, which monitors cybersecurity and internet governance, reported that Internet access was cut off across much of Iraq and social and messaging apps blocked amid the growing unrest.
The U.S.-led coalition, which has a presence on the ground in Iraq, issued a statement saying it is monitoring the protests and added that ``we call on all sides to reduce tensions and reject violence" as the loss of life and injuries among civilians and Iraqi security forces was deeply concerning.
Coalition spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III, said that explosions were heard in the Green Zone before dawn Thursday. He said Iraqi forces were investigating and that no coalition facility was struck. ``Coalition troops always reserve the right to defend ourselves, attacks on our personnel will not be tolerated," he said.
An Iraqi security official said two mortar shells hit the Green Zone, falling on open space and not causing any casualties. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Dozens of university graduates unable to find jobs in the corruption-plagued but oil-rich country have also joined the rallies. Politicians denounced the violence and at least one, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called for an investigation.
Earlier on Wednesday, at least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in clashes that spread across Iraq despite a massive security dragnet mounted by the government in an effort to quash the economically-driven protests. On Tuesday, protests had left two dead _ one in Baghdad and another in the city of Nasiriyah _ and over 200 wounded.
Curfews were also announced in some of the southern provinces but they were not being observed.
In the southern city of Basra, unknown assailants shot and killed an Iraqi activist Hussein Adel Madani and his wife. Security officials said masked gunmen stormed the house early Thursday and killed the cartoonist and his wife while their two-year-old daughter, Zahra, was not harmed.
The well-known activists had been taking part in protests in the city Wednesday night.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the killing of the actvists.