Iraqi protesters pressed on with angry anti-government rallies in the capital and across several provinces for a fifth day on Saturday, setting government offices on fire and ignoring appeals for calm from political and religious leaders.
Security agencies fatally shot 19 protesters and wounded more than three dozen in a sustained deadly response that has claimed more than 80 lives since the upheaval began.
The semi official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, affiliated with the parliament, put the death toll at 94. It said nearly 4,000 people have been wounded since Tuesday, when mostly young demonstrators spontaneously initiated the rallies to demand jobs, improvements to electricity, water and other services, and an end to corruption in the oil-rich nation.
The violent deadlock presented the conflict-scarred nation with its most serious challenge since the defeat of ISIS two years ago and deepened the political crisis of a country still struggling with the legacy of multiple, unfinished wars since the US invasion in 2003.
“It has been 16 years of corruption and injustice,” said Abbas Najm, a 43-year-old unemployed engineer who was part of a rally on Saturday in the square. “We are not afraid of bullets or the death of martyrs. We will keep going and we won’t back down.”
Scrambling to contain the demonstrations, Iraqi leaders called an emergency session of parliament on Saturday to discuss the protesters’ demands. But they lacked a quorum due to a boycott called by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of parliament’s largest bloc.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said in an address to the nation that the protesters’ “legitimate demands” had been heard, but he defended the deadly response of security forces as a “bitter medicine” that was necessary for the country to swallow.
Health and security officials said more than a dozen people were killed and about 40 wounded in the capital on Saturday when security forces opened fire during protests in various neighborhoods, including central Tahrir Square, which remained closed to cars, and around which special forces and army vehicles deployed in an operation that extended as far as 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.
The forces also unleashed tear gas, said health, police and medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief reporters.
A protester who refused to be named for fear of repercussions said anti-riot police directly opened fire at the protesters. The military initially tried to stop the police but ultimately left the area, the protester said.
In a smaller, peaceful rally earlier Saturday in the capital, demonstrators raised banners demanding the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi and an investigation into the killings of protesters.
Thousands of protesters also took to the streets in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, defying a curfew still in place there.
In Diwaniyah, at least one protester was killed as demonstrators marched toward local government offices, a medical official and human rights official said. They did not provide details.
In the restive city of Nasiriyah, demonstrators torched the offices of three political parties and a lawmaker whom they blame for their country’s ills. Security forces responded with gunfire, but there was no immediate word on casualties, said the officials, who described the protest as “very large.”
Abdul Mahdi’s office and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi have called on protest representatives to meet with them so they could hear their demands.
In a televised meeting in parliament, al-Halbusi met with a group of Iraqis and tribal representatives, mostly in their 50s and older, to discuss the country’s myriad problems.
Al-Halbusi repeated promises to address unemployment and poverty.
But the promises did nothing to stop the unfolding street violence.
Protesters had defied the curfew, which was imposed on Thursday. The bloodiest violence in Baghdad came on Friday, when 22 people were killed.
Health officials said many of the victims’ wounds were in the head and chest.
Security was heavy throughout the capital but protests in central Baghdad were limited to a couple of streets near Tahrir Square.
Health and security officials said four people were killed when forces fired at protesters gathered in a street near the square. The tear gas and live ammunition was so intense that hundreds of protesters retreated. In their new location, at least three more protesters were killed amid intense gunfire.
Four others were wounded, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. The area was the sight of Friday’s deadly violence.
To the south, in the Zaafaraniyeh neighborhood, another protester was killed and 13 were injured, according to health and police officials.
Rasoul Saray, a 34-year-old unemployed Baghdad resident who took part in the protests, said security officials at checkpoints were stopping young men and turning them away in a number of suburbs, apparently fearing they would join the protests.
Saray said he saw one young man get arrested after security officials inspected his mobile phone and found a recorded protest video.
The protests continued despite calls from Iraq’s top Shia cleric for both sides to end four days of violence “before it’s too late.”
The spontaneous rallies 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.
Even after lifting the curfew, security remained heavy in Baghdad, and access to the Green Zone, the area housing government offices and foreign embassies, was restricted. Municipal workers were clearing the streets of the bullets and debris left behind by the latest confrontations.
A curfew remained in place in other cities in the south, where violence has been deadly in the last four days and authorities were concerned more rallies would be organized.