Clashes in southern Iraqi city of Karbala kill 2 protesters

Employees of Iraq central bank leave their workplaces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. Iraqi security forces deployed in large numbers around the bank and began evacuating employees from the building. The protesters did not appear to be heading toward the bank itself. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Two more Iraqi protesters have been killed in renewed clashes in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a flashpoint in weeks of anti-government demonstrations, a protester and a medic said Wednesday.

They said the two were killed in overnight clashes near the provincial headquarters in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks in the capital, Baghdad, and across the Shiite south, demanding sweeping political change. The protesters complain of widespread corruption, a lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, with regular power cuts despite the country’s vast oil reserves.

The protesters have focused their anger on Shiite political parties and militias, many of which have close ties to Iran . Across the south, they have attacked party and militia headquarters, setting some of them ablaze.

In Karbala, protesters attacked the Iranian Consulate earlier this week, hurling firebombs over its walls. Security forces killed at least three people and wounded several others as they dispersed the protest. Days earlier, masked men suspected of links to the security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Karbala, killing at least 18 people.

In the capital, Baghdad, protesters clashed with security forces on a fourth bridge across the Tigris River, after previous clashes forced the closure of three other bridges, paralyzing traffic. The protests have been centered in Tahrir Square, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, and the demonstrators have been trying to reach the Green Zone that is located on the other side, which houses government offices and foreign embassies.

As protesters moved toward the Martyrs’ Bridge, north of the other three, they passed near the headquarters of the central bank. Iraqi security forces deployed in large numbers around the bank and began evacuating employees from the building. The protesters did not appear to be heading toward the bank itself.

Security and medical officials said at least 29 people were wounded after being struck with batons or exposed to tear gas. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

In Tahrir Square, family and friends called for the release of Siba al-Mahdawi, a 37-year-old activist and volunteer medic who was abducted over the weekend. Ahmed al-Mahdawi, her brother, said she was taken by masked men dressed in black as she returned home from a protest late Saturday. He said the family has received no word of her whereabouts since she went missing four days ago.

“She assumed responsibility for the family after our father died,” taking care of her mother and four younger siblings as they struggled to find steady work, he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement calling on the government to “engage seriously and urgently with Iraqi citizens who are demanding reform.”

“We deplore the killing and kidnapping of unarmed protesters, threats to freedom of expression, and the cycle of violence taking place,” it said. “Iraqis must be free to make their own choices about the future of their nation.”

Iraqi security forces have killed at least 273 protesters in two major waves of demonstrations since early October, including four who died Wednesday of wounds suffered earlier. Iraq’s leaders have promised reforms and early elections, but the process they have laid out could take months, and the protests have only grown in recent days.

Iraq has held regular elections since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but they have been dominated by Shiite Islamist parties that have failed to deliver on promises to improve daily life. The protests pose the biggest challenge to the government since it declared victory over the Islamic State group nearly two years ago.

Internet access remained limited on Wednesday after a government shutdown earlier this week. Netblocks, a civil society group that tracks internet restrictions, said usage dropped to 19% of normal levels overnight Tuesday before being partially restored. There were still widespread internet outages in Baghdad and across the south, with access to social media heavily restricted.

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Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Beirut contributed to this report.

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