Iraqi government must 'engage seriously' with protesters, says U.S. embassy

“There is no path forward based on suppression of the will of the Iraqi people,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.

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By Saphora Smith

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad called on the Iraqi government Wednesday to engage with Iraqis demanding reform and condemned the ongoing “cycle of violence.”

"The government of Iraq and the country's political leaders must engage seriously and urgently with Iraqi citizens who are demanding reform," the embassy said in a statement. "There is no path forward based on suppression of the will of the Iraqi people."

The short statement added that the U.S. deplored the "killing and kidnapping of unarmed protesters, threats to freedom of expression, and the cycle of violence taking place."

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across Iraq in recent weeks, demanding sweeping political change and railing against the perceived interference of neighboring Iran into Iraqi affairs. They protesters complain of a lack of jobs, poor basic services and endemic corruption. Many accuse the governing elite of pillaging the oil-rich country’s wealth while many Iraqis live in poverty.

Since protests broke out on Oct. 1, security forces have repeatedly clashed with the largely leaderless movement. Some 264 protesters have been killed and 12,000 protesters and security forces injured, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission. The United Nations estimates that as of Nov. 4 at least 254 people were killed and thousands more injured.

NBC News could not independently confirm the death toll.

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Anti-government protesters lit fires while security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas near the state-run TV offices in Baghdad, Iraq, on Monday. Khalid Mohammed / AP

In an effort to quell the unrest, Iraq’s leaders have imposed curfews and have promised reforms and early elections but protests have only grown in recent days.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that two Iraqi protesters had been killed in clashes overnight in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a flashpoint in weeks of anti-government demonstrations. On Sunday, hundreds of Iraqi protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in the city, throwing rocks at the building and breaking windows, according to local police.

Karbala was also the site of a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations by masked men last week during which at least 14 protesters were reported to have been killed, according to Amnesty International. The government maintains that one person was killed, and denies involvement in the violence.

Earlier this week, two other protesters were killed and 23 injured in Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq after security forces fired live ammunition at the crowd, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission. NBC News could not independently confirm these reports.

In a report released on Tuesday, the U.N. said it had recorded some 48 cases of unarmed protesters being shot dead during demonstrations while damaging property, committing arson or attempting to enter government or party offices in central and southern Iraq. It did not specify whether it was security forces who were allegedly responsible for their deaths.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported last week that it had found five instances where tear gas canisters, allegedly modeled on military grenades, had resulted in “horrific injuries and death” when fired directly at protesters. In multiple cases, the grenades had pierced the victims’ skulls and embedded inside their heads, the report said.

Demonstrators protest in Tahrir square, Baghdad, on Tuesday. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

“All the evidence points to Iraqi security forces deploying these military-grade grenades against protesters in Baghdad, apparently aiming for their heads or bodies at point-blank range,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East =research director at Amnesty.

NBC News could not confirm either of these reports.

The protests show no sign of abating. Photos overnight of Tahrir square, where many of the protesters in Baghdad have congregated in recent weeks to voice their disaffection, showed it teeming with people illuminated under the streetlights.

And in the southern province of Dhi Qar on Monday, crowds of people protesting at night were pictured waving their illuminated cell phones in the air.

Associated Press contributed.