Death toll in Iraq protests soars to 53 as security forces 'fire live rounds'
The death toll from days of violent demonstrations across Iraq surged to 53 yesterday, as unrest rapidly accelerated and the country's most powerful cleric placed the blame squarely on politicians.
In a rare intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is law for most of Iraq's majority Shi'ites, called on protesters and the security forces to avoid violence. But he also ordered political factions to respond to protest demands.
"It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction," Mr Sistani said in a letter read out by his representative.
"The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground," he said. "Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening."
In an overnight TV address, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he understood the frustration of the public but there was no "magic solution" to Iraq's problems. He pledged reforms, though these drew scorn from demonstrators.
"The promises by Adel Abdul Mahdi are to fool the people, and today they are firing live gunshots at us," said a young man among a small group that fled as shots rang out at a major central Baghdad square early on Thursday.
"Today this was a peaceful protest. They set up these barricades, and the sniper is sitting right there since last night."
The violent demonstrations have escalated by the day since they first erupted on Tuesday, sweeping across the country spontaneously, without public backing from any organised political group and taking the authorities by surprise.
Security forces have fired live ammunition at crowds of mainly young men, and gunmen have fired back. Hundreds of people have been wounded, including members of the security forces and demonstrators.
Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba as unrest spread to the capital's north.
The unrest, fuelled by popular rage over poor living standards and corruption, is Iraq's biggest security challenge since the defeat of Isil in 2017.