BAGHDAD -- Twelve demonstrators were killed Sunday in ongoing protests against the Iraqi government, raising the death toll to more than 100 in six days of clashes that have also left thousands wounded.
The street protests are the biggest challenge yet to the fragile government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. He took office in 2018, less than a year after the nation declared victory against the Islamic State extremist group.
Iraq's government has scrambled to contain the popular anger that has racked Baghdad and a number of southern cities since Tuesday. Security forces responded with a crackdown on the spontaneous rallies of demonstrators demanding jobs, better services and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country. The protesters also have rallied against neighboring Iran's influence in the country's politics.
In the first official statement from the government accounting for the violence, Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said Sunday that 104 people had been killed in the six days of unrest, including eight members of the security forces, and more than 6,000 people had been wounded. Sunday's reported death toll, however, rose after the release of Maan's statement.
Maan said an investigation was underway to determine who was behind the violence in Baghdad on Friday -- the most deadly day so far.
The chaos comes at a critical time for the government, which 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.
Iraq's most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged the protesters and the security forces to end the violence.
Abdul-Mahdi, meanwhile, has called for the demonstrators to go home, pledging to meet with them and hear their demands.
"I am ready to go wherever our brotherly protesters are and meet them, or send them envoys to other locations without any armed forces," he said late Saturday. "I will go and meet them without weapons and sit with them for hours to listen to their demands."
But the prime minister also defended the security forces, saying they were carrying out their duties and would only use force in extreme cases of self-defense.
"We can't accept the continuation of the situation like this," Abdul-Mahdi told his Cabinet late Saturday in televised remarks. "We hear of snipers, firebombs, burning a policeman, a citizen."
Abdul-Mahdi announced late Saturday a 17-point recovery plan that his government hopes will calm the protesters. It includes construction of more housing units and offers stipends for the unemployed.
The plan also includes compensation for the families of those killed in the protests, whether demonstrators or security forces. The prime minister said all of them would be considered "martyrs" eligible for state benefits.
Speaking on Sunday, Maan said protesters had burned 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters. He said security forces didn't confront the protesters, adding that "malicious hands" were behind the targeting of protesters and security members alike.
That contradicted accounts from demonstrators and journalists at the scene who have said they saw security forces firing on demonstrators. Some protesters said snipers also took part in breaking up the protests. Maan said most of those killed Friday were hit in the head or heart.
Officials had said earlier that there were attempts at "sedition" from snipers who targeted security forces and protesters. They didn't elaborate.
Sunday's rally drew hundreds of protesters to streets near Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb a little more than 2 miles from Tahrir Square. The square has been the intended destination of each day's rallies, although authorities have prevented protesters from reaching it.
A security official and a medical official in an area hospital said 12 protesters were killed and more than 50 others wounded as they repeatedly tried to break through a security cordon to head to the city center. The officials, who did not provide details, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Security forces have beefed up their presence in central Baghdad, deploying as far as Sadr City to seal off Tahrir Square.
Army troops blocked a main road Sunday to prevent the protesters from advancing, then fired toward them to push them back. After about an hour, there was more intense gunfire, with soldiers firing over the heads of protesters as they tried to advance.
Ducking in reaction to the gunfire, some protesters piled over one another while trying to hide behind the wall of a nearby water fountain. One protester carrying a drum chanted "peaceful, peaceful," as others joined in. As the gunfire continued, protesters set tires on fire.
Some demonstrators arrived in rickshaws, which have been used to carry the wounded from the bloody clashes.
The United Nations envoy for Iraq appealed for an end to the violence and called for holding to account those responsible.
"This must stop. I call on all parties to pause and reflect," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert tweeted Saturday night.Gallery: Iraq protests
Earlier Sunday, Baghdad's streets had been mostly quiet. Students made it to schools, and government employees returned to work.
But burned tires and debris littered thoroughfares while security forces remained heavily deployed in many neighborhoods.
In Baghdad, the protesters are largely teenagers and young men, many of them too young to remember Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion more than 16 years ago. They say their childhoods have been battered by war, and in their adulthoods they are largely shut out of a job market that favors those with political connections.
Atheer Assem, a pizza restaurant owner, said he was able to shop Sunday, the start of the workweek, for ingredients for his baked goods. But he said his clients have stopped going to his shop because of the violence, even though it is in a neighborhood that has not witnessed any protests.
"The protests are making people afraid to go out," he said, estimating his sales to have dropped by 70%.
Parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi told protest leaders on Saturday that their "voice was being heard," but protesters said officials weren't addressing their grievances.
"These speeches are meant as anesthesia for the people. They're trying to calm us down," said Ali Mohammed, a 37-year-old protester. "They have to realize this isn't like before. If they don't make changes, things are going to get worse."
Much of the country's nearly 14 million people live in worsening conditions, despite record oil output.
Security forces clashed with demonstrators late into Saturday night, firing tear gas and bullets into crowds that held their ground. Young men covered their faces to protect themselves from the stinging fumes.
"We're not leaving," shouted one. "Look what they're doing to us."
Information for this article was contributed by Qassim Abdul-Zahra of The Associated Press and by Louisa Loveluck of The Washington Post.
Anti-government protesters in Baghdad run for cover Sunday as Iraqi security forces fire live ammunition into the air.
A Section on 10/07/2019
Print Headline: Death toll at protests tops 100, Iraq reports