BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi army on Monday announced it would impose an overnight curfew in the capital as students and schoolchildren joined spreading protests to demand an overhaul of the government.
Swathes of Iraq have been engulfed by demonstrations over unemployment and corruption this month that have evolved into demands for regime change.
The rallies have gathered despite temporary curfews, threats of arrest and violence that has left nearly 240 people dead, including five protesters in Baghdad on Monday.
The military said cars and foot traffic would be barred in the capital for six hours starting at midnight.
The move sparked concern security forces want to clear out main gathering places like the capital’s Tahrir Square, occupied by demonstrators for four consecutive nights.
Security forces there have relied heavily on tear gas to keep protesters from storming the Green Zone, which hosts government offices and foreign missions.
But protesters had otherwise been allowed to set up tents in Tahrir and taken over multi-story buildings there since Thursday in a marked departure from the response to protests during the first week of this month.
They were joined in the past 24 hours by a huge contingent of students, who joined despite stern warnings by the higher education minister and the prime minister’s office that they should “stay away.”
“No school, no classes, until the regime collapses!” boycotting students shouted on Monday in Diwaniyah, 180 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital.
Diwaniyah’s union of universities and schools announced a 10-day strike on Monday “until the regime falls,” with thousands of uniformed pupils and even professors flooding the streets.
Young protesters still gathered on Monday morning in the southern cities of Nasiriyah, Hillah and Basra.
In Kut, most government offices were shut for lack of staff.
‘No nation, no class!’
In Baghdad, demonstrators gathered on campuses and in Tahrir Square.
“Qusay al-Suhail (the higher education minister) said not to come down into the streets. But we say: no nation, no class!” one student protester said.
“All we want is for the government to immediately submit its resignation. Either it resigns, or it gets ousted.”
About 60 percent of Iraq’s 40-million-strong population is under the age of 25.
But youth unemployment stands at 25 percent and one in five people live below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC’s second-largest crude producer.
Anger at inequality and accusations that government corruption was fueling it sparked protests in Baghdad on October 1 that have since attracted growing numbers of young people.
On Monday, a small group of students brought kits to Tahrir Square to treat people affected by tear gas along with cans of Pepsi — believed to alleviate discomfort when splashed on the face.
“It’s my first day at the protests. I told my mom I’m going to class, but I came here instead!” a girl with curly hair told AFP.
In the province of Diyala, which had so far been calm, two members of the provincial council resigned in solidarity with the rallies.
Even in the holy city of Najaf, dozens of young clerics-to-be took to the streets.
The protests are unprecedented in recent Iraqi history for their ire at the entire political class, with some even criticizing traditionally revered religious leaders.
“We want the parliament to be dissolved, a temporary government, an amended constitution and early elections under United Nations supervision,” a demonstrator in Baghdad told AFP.
“That’s what the people want. We don’t want another solution.”
On Monday, Iraq’s parliament voted to dissolve the provincial councils, cancel the extra privileges of top officials and summon embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi for questioning.
Abdel Mahdi has proposed a laundry list of reforms, including hiring drives, increased pensions and promises to root out corruption.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh has also held discussions with the UN on electoral reform and amendments to the 2005 constitution, but they have not appeased protesters.
In solidarity with demonstrators, four lawmakers resigned late on Sunday, and the largest parliamentary bloc has been holding an open-ended sit-in since Saturday night.
Saeroon, the bloc tied to firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, said it was dropping its support for Abdel Mahdi.
The move has left the premier more squeezed than ever, as Saeroon was one of the two main sponsors of his government.
The other was Fatah, the political arm of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which has said it would continue to back the central government.
Several Hashed offices have been torched in recent days in southern Iraq, prompting vows of “revenge” from its leaders.
Sadr responded Sunday, warning them: “Do not champion the corrupt. Do not repress the people.”