BAGHDAD: The death toll in five days of clashes between Iraqi police and protesters rose to over 100 on Sunday and the government struggled to appease public anger over corruption and unemployment by announcing reforms.
The Interior Ministry said the toll was now 104 killed and more than 6,000 wounded in violence since Tuesday but denied government forces had shot directly at demonstrators. The dead included eight members of the security forces.
The protests pose the biggest security and political challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi`s government since it took power a year ago, and have revived fears of a new spiral of violence that could suck in influential militia groups.
Two years after oil-producing Iraq declared the defeat of Islamic State, security has improved but corruption is rampant, wrecked infrastructure has not been rebuilt and jobs are scarce.
At an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday night, Abdul Mahdi`s government agreed a 17-point plan to increase subsidized housing for the poor, stipends for the unemployed and training programs and small loans initiatives for unemployed youth.
The families of those killed during demonstrations this week will also receive handouts and care usually granted to members of the security forces killed during war.
"Amid all of this, I swear to God that my only concern is for the casualties," Abdul Mahdi was quoted by state television as saying during the cabinet meeting, Details of the plan were disseminated on social media, but there was a continued internet outage across most of the country.
Eighteen people were killed in clashes late on Saturday and into early Sunday in the capital Baghdad, the police and medical sources said. Police also fired live rounds during clashes in the southern city of Nasiriya, and 24 people were wounded in the clashes overnight, including seven policemen, according to security, hospital and morgue sources.
Protesters also torched the headquarters of several political parties in Nasiriya, police said. These included the headquarters of the powerful Dawa party that dominated Iraq`s government from 2003 until 2018 elections.
Calm returned during the day on Sunday to the heavily guarded capital Baghdad and southern provinces, where there have been heavy clashes in the past few days. But protests have tended to gather steam later in the day and small groups of young men gathered in eastern Baghdad, police sources said.
Violence also broke out again in Diwaniya, another city south of Baghdad killing at least one person, police said. Before the renewed clashes, Saturday had been a day of relative calm after authorities lifted a curfew and traffic moved normally in the centre of Baghdad. Hundreds of security personnel were deployed in the streets.
"Security forces did all they could to preserve the safety of the protesters and security personnel," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Saad Maan said.
FEARS OF ESCALATION
Anger among the protesters runs deep, and the government faces opposition among parliamentary blocs who have begun boycotting legislative meetings.
Influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a mass popular following and controls a large chunk of parliament, demanded on Friday that the government resign and snap elections be held. At least one other major parliamentary grouping allied itself with Sadr against the government.
The governor of Baghdad province, whose position is not very influential, resigned on Sunday after accusations by protesters that he failed to improve conditions in the city.
But powerful political parties that have dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein have not indicated they are willing to relinquish the institutions they control.
"There is no justification for the use of live bullets against peaceful demonstrators," Aqeel al-Musawi, the head of Iraq`s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights, said in a statement.
"The government has a duty to protect the demonstrators and enable them to express their legitimate demands smoothly." The violence continued as people began journeying across southern Iraq for the Shi`ite pilgrimage of Arbaeen, which is expected to attract 20 million worshippers.