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Several protesters killed as demonstrations rage across Iraq

At least three people slain during protests, including one man killed by tear gas canister hit to head, witnesses say
Iraqi demonstrator astride horse waves sword amid anti-government protest in Baghdad on 8 November (Reuters)

Fresh clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters raged on Friday, leaving at least three people dead. 

The main protest camp in Baghdad's Tahrir [Liberation] Square, which has been occupied by demonstrators for two weeks, saw numbers swell into the thousands on Friday, according to the AFP news agency. 

"Even if the bridges and most of the roads are closed, people are driving all the way around from far-away areas to reach Tahrir," one protester said. 

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Security forces sealed off four bridges to keep protesters in Tahrir from crossing the Tigris into the Green Zone, which houses parliament, the cabinet, foreign embassies and other key buildings, AFP reported. 

During Friday's demonstrations, security forces fired tear gas and threw stun grenades into crowds,  Reuters news agency reported, citing journalists on the ground. 

One protester was killed by a tear gas canister fired directly at his head, a Reuters witness said. It was not immediately clear where the incident took place. 

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Friday, since 25 October at least 16 people have been killed by direct hits from tear gas canisters.

In the report, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, said the numbers of those killed by the canisters  "suggest a gruesome pattern rather than isolated accidents". 

In the southern city of Basra, two people were killed as security forces dispersed hundreds of demonstrators outside the local government headquarters on Friday, police and medics told Reuters. The causes of their deaths were not immediately reported. 

Later, the Iraqi military said in a statement that 17 rockets had landed near a base hosting US forces in northern Iraq, Reuters reported. The statement did not say who was believed to be behind the attack, but added that there were no injuries or major damage. 

Ongoing protests

During the ongoing protests that began on 1 October, Iraqi police, military and paramilitary groups have often fired live rounds at unarmed protesters, sparking outrage as authorities try to grapple with the spreading movement, their violent response seeming to add more fuel to the public's anger. 

More than 280 people have been killed since the protests over high unemployment, poor public services and government corruption began in Baghdad and quickly spread to Iraq's southern provinces.

In Basra on Thursday, four people were killed as security forces dispersed protesters. A person wounded in clashes two days earlier about an hour south of Basra at the Umm Qasr port, died from his injuries on Thursday, officials said.

The demonstrators, mostly unemployed youths, are demanding an overhaul of the political system and the exit from power of a corrupt ruling class that has dominated state institutions since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

While the government has provided some handouts to the poor, promised to prosecute corrupt officials and to create more job opportunities for graduates, it has not been able to to placate the protesters.