Police shot at a small group of protesters in Baghdad on Friday after three deadly days of anti-government unrest and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said no "magic solution" was available, pledging vague reform that are unlikely to placate Iraqis.
The Iraqi capital was mostly quiet ahead of Muslim Friday prayers. An ongoing curfew, defied by thousands of demonstrators on Thursday, saw army and special forces deploy around central squares and streets.
Earlier on Friday, Abdul-Mahdi sent a message to anti-government protesters, saying their “legitimate demands” have been heard and urging them to go home while also comparing security measures imposed in the wake of this week’s violence to “bitter medicine” that needs to be swallowed.
Since Tuesday, security forces have fired live rounds and tear gas every day to disperse the protesters, leaving 44 people dead and hundreds wounded, according to police and medical sources who spoke to Reuters on Friday.
The largest number of casualties occurred in the southern city of Nassiriya, where 18 people were killed, followed by the capital Baghdad where the death toll stood at 16, they said.
Authorities have also cut internet access in much of Iraq since late Wednesday, in a desperate move to curb the rallies.
The rallies have erupted spontaneously, mostly spurred by youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country.
The unrest is the first major challenge for Abdul-Mahdi, who took office last year backed by Shi'ite parties that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
It also comes on the eve of the Arbaeen Shi'ite pilgrimage, when as many as 20 million worshippers are expected to journey for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world's biggest annual gathering, ten times the size of the Mecca Hajj
Speaking in a televised address to the nation, broadcast at 2:30 A.M., Abdul-Mahdi said “We will not make empty promises ... or promise what we cannot achieve.”
He said there is “no magic solution” to Iraq’s problems but pledged to work on laws granting poor families a basic income, provide alternative housing to violators and fight corruption.
“The security measures we are taking, including temporary curfew, are difficult choices. But like bitter medicine, they are inevitable,” he said. “We have to return life to normal in all provinces and respect the law.”
It was not immediately clear what the protesters’ response to Abdul-Mahdi’s statements will be.
The unrest is the most serious challenge for his year-old government, which also has been caught in the middle of increasing U.S.-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now