No 'magic solution' to unrest in Iraq as death toll climbs to 59
Canada joins 3 Gulf nations in advising citizens to avoid travel to Iraq
Security forces opened fire directly at hundreds of anti-government demonstrators Friday in central Baghdad, killing at least 17 protesters and injuring dozens hours after Iraq's top Shia cleric warned both sides to end four days of violence "before it's too late."
The latest deaths raised the number of people killed in clashes during ongoing protests to 59. They marked a sharp escalation in the use of force against unarmed protesters.
But neither the government nor demonstrators appear to be willing to back down from unrest that has presented the most serious challenge for Iraq since the defeat of ISIS militants two years ago.
Spontaneous rallies, which began Tuesday, started as mostly young demonstrators took to the streets demanding jobs, improved services like electricity and water, and an end to corruption in the oil-rich country.
Iraq's prime minister on Friday urged anti-government protesters to go home, saying their "legitimate demands" have been heard. In a desperate attempt to curb massive rallies, authorities blocked the internet and imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the capital.
But protesters defied Adel Abdul Mahdi's message and gathered shortly before noon near Baghdad's central Tahrir Square.
Following Friday prayers around sunset, the number of protesters grew to more than 1,000 and forces opened fire in side streets to prevent more people from reaching the square, which was sealed off.
Security forces hit two people directly in the head and killed them, according to witnesses as well as security and hospital officials. The military's media arm also said two policemen and two civilians were killed by sniper fire.
At least 11 people were killed Friday in the capital, near Tahrir Square, while Iraqi hospital officials reported nine deaths in the southern city of Nasiriyah, about 320 kilometres southeast of Baghdad.
Nasiriyah has witnessed the most violence in the protests, with at least 25 people, including a policeman, killed.
'We will not make empty promises'
In a speech Friday, Abdul Mahdi said there is "no magic solution" to Iraq's problems, but pledged to fight corruption and work on laws granting poor families a basic income.
"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."
The prime minister also defended the nation's security forces, saying they abide by strict rules against use of "excessive violence" and the escalation of the protests has led to violence.
The unrest is the most serious challenge for Abdul Mahdi's 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.
Top cleric calls for end to violence
After Abdul Mahdi's speech, Iraqis awaited what Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shia cleric, would say in his Friday sermon.
He called for an end to the violence gripping the country, urging both sides to pull back "before it is too late."
He also criticized the government, as well as the leaders of the two biggest parliament blocs, saying they failed to fulfil their promises to the people.
Al-Sistani told political leaders to take "practical and clear steps" toward combatting corruption and on the government to "carry out its duty" to diminish people's suffering.
He reiterated his suggestion for a committee of experts tasked with making recommendations on fighting corruption, as a way out of the current crisis.
Following al-Sistani's statement, another influential Shia cleric, whose political coalition came in first in last year's national elections, said he's suspending participation in parliamentary activities until the government introduces a program that serves Iraqi aspirations.
Muqtada al-Sadr asked members of his bloc to boycott sessions until the government issues a program acceptable to the people.
Al-Sadr's Sairoon electoral list won the largest single bloc of seats in parliament elections last year. The bloc has 54 seats of 329 seats.
Protesters dismiss PM's words
The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and predominantly Shia areas of southern Iraq, 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 instead he was looking to the Shia religious authority for a resolution.
Hamid, an unemployed 32-year-old, said "if the government is not dissolved, we will avenge our martyrs."
On Thursday, Iraq closed a border crossing with Iran in the eastern province of Diyala, saying it will remain shut until further notice. Protesters who had blocked sections of the road to Baghdad's International Airport late Thursday had dispersed before daylight.
Travel warnings issued
Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain have advised their citizens to avoid travelling to Iraq, and anyone who is there is being asked to leave the country immediately.
Global Affairs Canada is also warning Canadians not to travel to Iraq due to the "continued volatile, unpredictable and potentially dangerous security situation.
"If you are in Iraq, consider departing by commercial means if it is safe to do so," said an advisory issued Thursday.
With files from Reuters