BAGHDAD - Protesters clashed with anti-riot police Friday in Iraq despite the premier's pleas for patience and an internet blackout on the fourth day of mass rallies that have now left 42 people dead.
Many were awaiting a signal in the midday sermon of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's highest Shia Muslim authority, that would influence the revolt in the predominantly-Shia areas.
Before dawn, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi appeared in his first televised address since the protests kicked off on Tuesday, asking for more time to implement a reform agenda in a country plagued by corruption and unemployment after decades of conflict. The country currently ranks 168th out of 180 countries on watchdog Transparency International's corruption index.
Abdel Mahdi on Wednesday declared a curfew in Baghdad until further notice after at least seven people were killed and more than 400 were injured during two days of nationwide anti-government demonstrations.
Curfews were imposed earlier in three southern cities while elite counter-terrorism troops opened fire on protesters trying to storm Baghdad airport and deployed to the southern city of Nassiriya after gunfights broke out between protesters and security forces, police sources said.
As Mahdi's pre-recorded address played on state television, heavy gunfire rang out across Baghdad and two more protesters and one police officer were killed in the south.
By sunrise, security forces were out in force across the capital in a bid to tighten a curfew announced the previous day, blocking off access to the emblematic gathering place of Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
But dozens of protesters amassed in a main thoroughfare nearby, descending from trucks and buses wearing masks and carrying Iraqi flags.
"We heard Abdel Mahdi's speech yesterday. These are promises we've been hearing for more than 15 years," said a 32-year-old protester who identified himself as Sayyed.
"They change nothing and they won't get us off the streets. Either we die or we change the regime," he said.
Demonstrations over corruption, unemployment and lacking services first broke out in Baghdad and have since spread to the Shia-dominated south, while the northern and western provinces have remained relatively quiet.
They are unprecedented because of their apparent spontaneity and independence in a country where rallies are typically called by politicians or religious figures.
Instead of matching posters or party insignia, protesters have brandished Iraqi flags and banners with uncoordinated slogans and hashtags.
Any power vacuum in Iraq, should the government be toppled, could prove challenging for the region, given Baghdad's status as an ally of both the United States and Iran, who are locked in a political standoff.
Iran on Friday called on its citizens planning to take part in Arbaeen, a major upcoming Shia pilgrimage in Iraq, to delay their travel into the country.
The foreign ministry advised Iranian pilgrims "intending to travel to Iraq to delay their journeys until conditions ease in the country".
On Wednesday, Iranian state television announced that one of the three border posts used by pilgrims to enter Iraq had been closed "at the request of Iraqi authorities".
Videos spread on social media have shown some protesters shouting slogans against Iran for meddling in its neighbour's affairs and supporting failed parties in Iraq. Some protesters have burned Iranian flags, while others have accused Iran-backed paramilitaries of responsibility for the shooting of protesters.
A series of events perceived as demonstrating Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs preceded the outbreak of the protests. This included the dismissal of the deputy commander of Iraq's counterterrorism bureau, Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, whose picture many people carried at the protests.
Saadi was seen as independent of Iranian elements in the army and Iraq's paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Units, and thus outside of Iran's sphere of influence. This led many Iraqis to assume Iran's hand in Saadi's dismissal.
Iraqis have also been upset by certain comments made by Iranian officials concerning Tehran's standoff with Washington, with many believing Iran would seek to turn Iraq into the battleground of the conflict.
Iran is a frequent source of ire for protesters in Iraq. During another outbreak of discontent one year ago, protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in the southern oil hub of Basra, chanting slogans against Iran's influence in Iraqi affairs.
'No magic solutions'
Riot police have unleashed water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire to clear the streets of protesters, who amassed despite curfews and an internet blackout across three-quarters of Iraq since Wednesday.
Iraqi officials on Friday reported nine more deaths in anti-government protests in the country's south, bringing this week’s overall death toll to 42.
Hospital officials say the deaths occurred late Thursday in Nassiriya, which has witnessed the most violence in the protests, with at least 25 people, including a policeman, killed. The city is about 320 kilometers, or 200 miles, southeast of Baghdad.
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.
But in his speech on Friday, Abdel Mahdi - who himself hails from Nassiriya - insisted security forces were abiding by "international standards" in dealing with protesters and rejected the"politicisation" of protests.
He described the clashes as "the destruction of the state, the entire state", but refrained from directly addressing protesters' demands.
Instead, the embattled premier broadly defended his government's achievements and pledged monthly stipends for families in need, while asking for more time to implement the reform agenda he promised last year.
"There are no magic solutions," he said.
People had been awaiting a major turning point on Friday with Sistani's weekly sermon, expecting it would either demand protesters clear the streets or add fuel to the fire.
Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric called for an end to the violence gripping the country in his first comments since the protests began, urging both sides to pull back “before it is too late.”
He also criticized the government, as well as the leaders of the two biggest parliament blocs, saying they failed to fulfill their promises to the people.
Al-Sistani called on political leaders to take “practical and clear steps” toward combatting corruption and on the government to “carry out its duty” to diminish people’s suffering.
He reiterated his suggestion for a committee of technocrats tasked with making recommendations on fighting corruption, as a way out of the current crisis.
Al-Sistani’s message was delivered on Friday by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shia holy city of Karbala.
His sermon usually carries the final word even at the highest level of Iraq's governments: in 2014, Sistani put an end to previous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's term.
The trajectory of the protests could also be heavily influenced by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for "a general strike".
Sadr was behind the last round of major protests in Baghdad in 2016, when his supporters stormed the Green Zone which is home to some ministries and embassies.
The United Nations, European Union and Britain have all appealed for calm, while rights group Amnesty International condemned the response to protests.
"It is outrageous that Iraqi security forces time and again deal with protesters with such brutality using lethal and unnecessary force," said Amnesty's Lynn Maalouf.
She said the internet blackout was a "draconian measure... to silence protests away from cameras and the world's eyes".