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Violence grips protest rally in Baghdad

At least five killed during demonstration by Muqtada al-Sadr loyalists demanding overhaul of Iraq's electoral system.

supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr

At least four protesters and one policeman have been killed in the Iraqi capital during a rally by thousands calling for an overhaul of the electoral system, according to Baghdad's governor.

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets at thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shia leader, who were demonstrating on Saturday near Baghdad's Green Zone to press for electoral changes.

At least 320 protesters and seven police officers were wounded as violence gripped the rally.

The Associated Press news agency, quoting hospital officials, said the officer died of a bullet wound.

Sadr has accused the elections commission of being corrupt and called for the commission's members to be changed, according to a statement from his office.

Rising to his call to protest, demonstrators had gathered near the Green Zone - a cluster of embassies and government buildings - to demand an overhaul of the commission that supervises elections before a provincial vote due in September.

Riot police fired tear gas when the crowd tried to move towards the zone, which also houses international organisations and the homes of prominent politicians.

Shots rang out in central Baghdad as security forces used live fire and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

"We will not give in to threats," said Serbat Mustafa, the head of the electoral commission, in an interview with a local Iraqi television channel on Saturday afternoon.

Mustafa said he would not offer his resignation and accused Sadr of using the commission as a political "scapegoat."

Abadi's appeal

An Associated Press news agency team at the scene of Saturday's rally saw ambulances carrying away protesters suffering from breathing difficulties.

The protest organisers said about two dozen demonstrators choked on the tear gas.

Live TV footage showed young men running away as white smoke filled Tahrir Square in Baghdad's business district.

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, called on the demonstrators to remain peaceful and to "abide by the law".

Sadr has been a fierce critic of Abadi, and last year protests that included many of his followers breached the highly fortified Green Zone twice.

Sadr suspects that members of the electoral commission are loyal to his Shia rival, Nouri al-Maliki, former prime minister and one of the closest allies of Iran in Iraq.


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