Security forces opened fire on hundreds of anti-government demonstrators Friday in central Baghdad, killing one protester, hours after Iraq's top Shia cleric warned both sides to end four days of deadly violence "before it's too late.''
At least 43 people have died in clashes during the continuing protests, which represent the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's government on its first anniversary in power.
In a televised address to the country early Friday, he said the protesters' "legitimate demands'' had been heard and they should go home, adding that the security measures used against the demonstrations were like "bitter medicine'' that needs to be swallowed.
Security forces fired directly at people trying to reach the capital's central Tahrir Square, which was sealed off, hitting a protester in the head and wounding four others, according to police and hospital officials.
The protesters, many of whom had camped on the streets overnight, gathered before noon near Tahrir in defiance of Abdul-Mahdi's call and a curfew that was announced earlier.
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.
Authorities have also cut internet access in much of Iraq since Wednesday night, in a desperate move to curb the rallies.
Iraq's most senior Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia 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.
Later, an influential Shia cleric whose Sairoon political bloc came in first in last year's national elections said he was suspending participation in parliamentary activities until the government introduces a program that serves Iraqi aspirations.
Muqtada al-Sadr asked members of his coalition to boycott sessions until the government issues a program acceptable to the people. Sairoon won the largest single bloc of seats last year, with 54 of the 329-seat parliament.
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 Shia 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.