BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s premier on Friday urged anti-government protesters to go home, saying their “legitimate demands” have been heard and comparing security measures imposed in the wake of this week’s demonstrations to “bitter medicine” that needs to be swallowed as the death toll from the violence rose to 42.
Dozens of protesters defied his message, gathering shortly before noon near Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square. Many had camped out on the streets overnight. Security forces responded by firing live bullets to disperse the crowd.
Meanwhile, Iraqi hospital officials reported nine more deaths in the southern city of Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, bringing this week’s death toll to 42.
Hospital officials said the deaths occurred late Thursday. Nasiriyah has seen the most violence in the protests, with at least 25 people, including a policeman, killed. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Since Tuesday, security forces have fired live rounds and tear gas every day to disperse protesters demanding job opportunities, improved services and an end to corruption.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi spoke in a televised address to the nation, broadcast at 2:30 a.m., about the demonstrations that have spread across many provinces in Iraq.
The rallies have erupted spontaneously, mostly spurred by youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country. Authorities have cut internet access in much of Iraq since late Wednesday in a desperate move to curb the rallies.
“We will not make empty promises … or promise what we cannot achieve,” said Abdul-Mahdi, who hails from Nasiriyah.
He said there is “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.
“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 defended the nation’s security forces, saying they abide by rules against use of “excessive violence” and that it was the escalation of the protests that led to violence.
He also said, without elaborating, that he “regrets some have successfully derailed some of the protests from their peaceful path” to “exploit” the violence for political reasons.
The unrest is the most serious challenge for Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old 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.
The mostly leaderless protests have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, bringing out jobless youths and university graduates who are suffering under an economy reeling from graft and mismanagement.
After Abdul-Mahdi’s speech, Iraqis awaited what Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric, would say about the protests in his Friday sermon.
In Nasiriyah, protester Haidar Hamid dismissed the prime minister’s speech, saying that said he was looking to the Shiite religious authority for a resolution.
“We wait until Friday prayers,” said Hamid, an unemployed 32-year-old. “If the government is not dissolved, we will avenge our martyrs.”
A group that monitors internet and cybersecurity, NetBlocks, said internet was briefly restored before al-Mahdi’s speech but by the time he was on screen access was shut again as new videos emerged of the protests. The internet in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region has not been affected.
On Thursday, Iraq closed a border crossing with Iran in the eastern province of Diyala, saying it will remain closed until further notice. Protesters who had blocked sections of the road to Baghdad’s International Airport late Thursday had dispersed before daylight.