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Violence escalates in Iraq even after top cleric urges calm

Anti-government protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Security forces opened fire directly at hundreds of anti-government demonstrators in central Baghdad, killing some protesters and injuring dozens, hours after Iraq's top Shiite cleric warned both sides to end four days of violence "before it's too late." (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — Security forces opened fire directly at hundreds of anti-government demonstrators Friday in central Baghdad, killing at least 10 protesters and injuring dozens, hours after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric warned both sides to end four days of violence “before it’s too late.”
The deaths raised to 53 the number of people killed in clashes during the continuing protests and marked a sharp escalation in the use of force against unarmed protesters. The violence showed both sides to be unwilling to back down from the unrest that marks the most serious challenge for Iraq since the defeat of the Islamic State group two years ago.
In a televised address to the country early Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said the protesters’ “legitimate demands” had been heard, adding that the security measures used against the demonstrations were like “bitter medicine” that needs to be swallowed. Authorities have shut the internet and imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the capital in a desperate attempt to curb the rallies.
Gunfire rang out in Baghdad on Friday, as security forces battled and chased groups of protesters. Security forces fired directly at people trying to reach the central Tahrir Square, which was sealed off, hitting two protesters directly in the head and killing them, according to witnesses as well as to security and hospital officials.
The military’s media arm said two policemen and two civilians were killed by sniper fire.
The protesters, many of whom had camped on the streets overnight, gathered before noon near Tahrir in defiance of Abdul-Mahdi’s call and the curfew announced a day earlier. Around sunset, following Friday prayers, the number of protesters grew to more than 1,000 as security forces opened fire in side streets to prevent more people from reaching the square. Tahrir, or Liberation square, is famous for its monument known as the Freedom Statue that depicts key events in Iraqi history before it became a republic starting in 1958.
“There’s no electricity, no jobs, people are dying of starvation, and people are sick. It is a curse,” said one young protester, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
“I am taking part in the demonstrations because of unemployment and corruption,” said Rasoul Saray a 34-year-old unemployed Baghdad resident who wore a green mask. He vowed to continue protesting despite the crackdown.
As a group of journalists were interviewing a protester in the square, a policeman opened fire and wounded the youth in the leg. None of the Iraqi journalists were hit.
Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi said in a televised speech Friday night that he supports the protesters’ demands, adding that lawmakers will work on fighting corruption that is “as dangerous as terrorism” — a reference to the country’s battle against the Islamic State group. He also called for an end to the use of live ammunition against protesters.
Since the spontaneous rallies began Tuesday, security forces have fired live rounds and tear gas every day to disperse them in multiple provinces. The mostly young demonstrators are demanding jobs, improved services like electricity and water, and an end to corruption in the oil-rich country.
Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged both sides to end the violence, and he blamed politicians, particularly lawmakers, for failing to enact promised reforms on the economy and corruption. The comments were his first since the protests began, and many across Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south had looked to the influential cleric for guidance.
Al-Sistani singled out the leaders of the two biggest parliament blocs.
“The government and the political sides have not fulfilled the demands of the people to fight corruption,” al-Sistani said in his Friday sermon, delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Al-Sistani urged the government to “carry out its duty” to ease people’s suffering and reiterated his call for a committee of technocrats to make recommendations on fighting corruption as a way out of the current crisis.
It was not immediately clear whether his comments would give momentum to protesters or help resolve the situation.
Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on the government to resign and hold early elections, saying in a statement that the shedding the blood of “Iraqis cannot be ignored.” Earlier, he had asked members of his coalition, which controls 54 of the 328 seats in parliament, to boycott sessions until the government puts forth a program acceptable to the people.
Meanwhile, Iraqi hospital officials reported nine more deaths in the southern city of Nasiriyah, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
Hospital officials said the deaths occurred Thursday night in the city, which has seen the most violence with at least 25 people killed, including a policeman. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In his address, Abdul-Mahdi said there was “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.
“We will not make empty promises … or promise what we cannot achieve,” said Abdul-Mahdi, a native of Nasiriyah.
“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.”
He also defended the security forces, saying they abide by strict rules against use of “excessive violence.” He blamed protesters for escalating the bloodshed.
He also said, without elaborating, that he “regrets some have successfully derailed some of the protests from their peaceful path” in order to “exploit” the violence for political reasons.
Abdul-Mahdi’s government 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 the south, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.
In Nasiriyah, protester Haidar Hamid dismissed the prime minister’s speech, saying he was looking to Shiite religious leaders for a resolution.
“If the government is not dissolved, we will avenge our martyrs,” said Hamid, who is 32 and unemployed.
A group that monitors internet and cybersecurity, NetBlocks, said the internet in most of Iraq was briefly restored before Abdul-Mahdi’s speech but access was shut down again by the time he was onscreen, apparently after new videos of the protests emerged. The internet in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region has not been affected.
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Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.