81 hurt in Iraq clashes with protesters

"Eighty-one people were wounded, nine of them by bullets. Security forces personnel are among the wounded," Dr Raykot Hama Rashid, director of the main hospital in the second largest city in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan province, said yesterday.

The clashes took place in Peeramard Street in central Sulaimaniyah, which has seen near daily demonstrations since mid-February, and where Rashid had said 31 people were injured on Sunday, nine of them by bullets.

Security personnel, including from the Kurdish Peshmerga and Asayesh forces, surrounded the street, witnesses said. They said the forces torched a podium, preventing protest leaders from voicing their demands.

Babaker Hussein from the Kurdish opposition Goran party said that shooting at protesters would only fuel larger demonstrations.

"Shooting on the protesters will not stop them, and the government will see bigger demonstrations in the coming days," he told AFP. But a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main parties that govern Iraqi Kurdistan, said the opposition had come prepared to provoke security forces.

"It was planned by the opposition parties, and their announcements were known to us," said Azad Jandiyany. Protesters have been calling for an end to official corruption, resignation of the regional government and an investigation into the deaths of three young demonstrators in clashes with security forces in February.

Five people have been killed -- including two policemen -- and more than 100 have been injured during two months of demonstrations. Protests around Iraq against poor supply of basic services such as electricity grew after uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt toppled entrenched regimes in those countries and spread across the Arab world early this year.

Since then, protests have erupted in different parts of Iraq at least every week, especially in the autonomous Kurdish north. But unlike the unrest and uprisings in other Arab countries, protesters in Iraq have not been demanding regime change, only reforms and better living conditions.

Last week, Amnesty International said that Iraqi authorities must stop intimidation and the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters demanding reforms, jobs, better services and an end to corruption.

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