Protesters gather around a burning riot police vehicle during clashes and rallies against corruption, failing public services, and unemployment in Baghdad's central Tayeran Square on October 3, 2019. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

The death toll from mass protests in Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq rose to 93 on Saturday as the unrest entered its fifth day, parliament’s human rights commission said.

Nearly 4,000 people have also been injured since the protests against chronic unemployment, poor public services and widespread corruption erupted in the capital on Tuesday, the commission said.

It was not immediately clear whether the latest deaths were from Friday’s huge protests or fresh demonstrations on Saturday.

The authorities have imposed a virtual blackout of the internet and confirmation of protest casualties in the provinces has trickled in slowly.

The Iraq government lifted the daytime curfew in Baghdad on Saturday but access roads to major squares remained blocked for fear of further deadly protests, AFP correspondents reported.

A total of 540 demonstrators have been arrested, of whom nearly 200 remain in custody, the panel added.

Curfew lifted, Internet blackout

Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi ordered the curfew in the capital lifted from 5am (0200 GMT) although an internet blackout remained in force.

Shoppers trickled back onto the streets to buy vegetables and other perishable goods the price of which had doubled since the deadly protests started.

Municipal street cleaners set about clearing the detritus of the four days of running clashes between protesters and riot police, which has seen breeze blocks and burning tires strewn across major thoroughfares.

Riot police blocked traffic between Tahrir (Liberation) Square and other gathering points as authorities waited to see whether a call from firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for the government to quit would bring his supporters out on to the streets.

The well-organized Sadrists have been a mainstay of most of the major protest movements of recent years.

As parliament prepared to convene later on Saturday, an onlooker who ventured out, Abu Salah, 70, was not convinced the protests were over. “If living conditions don’t improve, the protesters will be back,” he said.

Firebrand cleric

Iraqi firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr called on the government to resign as violence spiked on Friday across the country and protesters clashed with police on the fourth day of deadly demonstrations against corruption and unemployment.

The former Shiite militia leader, whose bloc is the biggest in parliament, said in a statement that in order to avoid further deaths “the government should resign and early elections should be held under UN supervision”.

He said he could “not keep silent” as Iraqi blood was being shed.

Friday saw chaotic scenes of protests in Baghdad and other cities with at least 10 people killed, including four – two police and two civilians – who security forces said were shot dead by “unidentified snipers”.

Rapid automatic rifle fire could be heard across the capital.

Sadr’s statement piled new pressure on Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi as he battles to quell the unrest. It came after Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged authorities in a midday sermon to heed the demands of demonstrators, warning the protests could escalate unless immediate and clear steps are taken.

An image grab taken from Iraqiya state TV shows Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi speaking after the outbreak of deadly protests in Baghdad on October 4, 2019, when thousands of protesters clashed with riot police in Baghdad and across the south to vent anger over corruption, unemployment and poor services. Photo: Iraqiya TV / AFP

In his first speech since protests began Tuesday, the embattled premier appealed for patience from the young unemployed who have formed the mainstay of the protests, saying his not yet year-old government needed more time to implement reforms.

But his plea fell on deaf ears, with Iraqis thronging the iconic Tahrir Square on Friday and clashed with the anti-riot police. Security forces opened up with a barrage of gunfire and reporters said they saw several people hit by bullets, some in the head and the stomach.

‘We’re not infiltrators’

“We’re not infiltrators,” protesters in the capital shouted, responding to accusations from Iraqi officials that “aggressors” were behind the protests.

Protests first broke out in Baghdad on Tuesday and have since spread across the Shiite-dominated south. They are unusual because of their apparent spontaneity and independence in a country where rallies are typically called by politicians or religious figures.

Medical sources say that most of those killed were hit by live rounds but did not specify who was shooting.

The Iraqi human rights commission said wounded protesters were being arrested from hospitals, slamming a heavy-handed approach by security forces.

The back-to-back messages from Sistani and Sadr were a huge blow to Abdel Mahdi’s government.

Sistani has repeatedly acted as final arbiter of the politics of Iraq’s Shiite community, which dominates the government.

And populist Sadr’s Saeroon bloc emerged as the biggest in the Iraqi parliament after May 2018 elections.

His supporters have been at the forefront of most of the larger protests in recent years, including in 2016 when he urged them to storm Baghdad’s administrative and diplomatic Green Zone.

Adel Mahdi on Friday asked for more time to implement his reform agenda in a country plagued by corruption and unemployment after decades of conflict.

“There are no magic solutions.”

‘Lethal force’

In a live television address, parliament speaker Mohammad al-Halboussi assured protesters “your voice is being heard”, adding that he was holding meetings with officials to discuss their grievances.

Riot police have unleashed water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire to clear the streets of protesters.

As protests and clashes gained in intensity, many Baghdad shops and petrol stations remained shuttered on Friday.

In a residential area near the protest site, crowds gathered to buy vegetables and fruit, with one shopkeeper saying the price of tomatoes, grapes and other greens had risen threefold.

Northern and western provinces that were ravaged in the 2014-2017 war against the Islamist State group have remained relatively quiet.

The United Nations and Amnesty International urged Iraqi authorities to respect the right of peaceful assembly.

“We are worried by reports that security forces have used live ammunition and rubber bullets in some areas, and have also fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters,” Marta Hurtado, spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, told reporters in Geneva.

Amnesty International’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf condemned the use of “lethal and unnecessary force”.

An internet blackout was a “draconian measure… to silence protests away from cameras and the world’s eyes”, she added.

AFP

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