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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 65 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 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 Mr. 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.
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.
In an address, Mr. 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 Mr. Abdul-Mahdi.
“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.
Mr. 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.