BAGHDAD — Iraq’s premier on Friday urged anti-government protesters to go home, saying their “legitimate demands” have been heard, as the death toll from days of violent demonstrations across Iraq surged to more than 40 on Friday, most of them killed in the last 24 hours.
But dozens of protesters defied his message, gathering shortly before noon near the central Tahrir Square. Many had camped out on the streets overnight.
Security forces responded by firing live bullets to disperse the crowd near Tahrir.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi spoke in a televised address to the nation following three days of demonstrations that have spread across many provinces in the country.
Authorities have also cut internet access in much of Iraq since late Wednesday, in a desperate move to curb the rallies.
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
“We will not make empty promises ... or promise what we cannot achieve,” Abdul-Mahdi said in his televised speech, broadcast at 2:30 a.m.
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 also defended the nation’s security forces, saying they abide by strict rules against use of “excessive violence.” He said the escalation of the protests leads to violence.
He also said, without elaborating, that he “regrets some have successfully derailed some of the protests from their peaceful path” in order to “exploit” them for political reasons.
The unrest is the most serious challenge for Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old government, which also 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.
In a rare intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is law for most of Iraq's majority Shi'ites, called on protesters and the security forces to avoid violence. But he also ordered political factions to respond to protest demands.
"It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction," Sistani said in a letter read out by his representative during a sermon.
"The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground," he said. "Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening."
The city of Nasiriyah, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad, has witnessed the most violence in the protests, with at least 16 people, including a policeman, killed.
Nasiriyah protester Haidar Hamid dismissed the speech of the prime minister, who also hails from the city. Instead, Hamid 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 again shut 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.