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Gunfire shatter brief calm in Iraq, protests restart

BAGHDAD — Soldiers fired in the direction of about 300 anti-government protesters who gathered Sunday in a suburb of the Iraqi capital Baghdad on the sixth straight day of unrest that has left more than 80 people dead.

The protests came after a bloody night in Baghdad, where 19 people were killed when security forces used live ammunition to break up the demonstrators. Baghdad has been at the center of protests that quickly spread to the country’s south. At least 84 people have been killed, including more than 50 in Baghdad, since Tuesday.

The protests began with demands for jobs and an end to corruption, and now include calls for justice for those killed in the protests.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called on protesters to end their street rallies, saying late Saturday he was ready to meet with them to hear their demands. He said there were orders for the security forces not to use live ammunition, only allowed in strict cases of self-defense.

By Sunday afternoon, the protesters, mostly young men, were scattered in side streets near Sadr City.

Security forces have beefed up their presence in central Baghdad, deploying as far as Sadr city, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from Tahrir Square. The square, now sealed off, has been the center of the protests when they first erupted Tuesday.

Army troops blocked a main road preventing the protesters from advancing. Soldiers then fired toward the protesters to apparently push them back. After about an hour, there was more intense gunfire as protesters persisted in trying to advance.

Ducking in reaction to the fire, some protesters piled over one another trying to hide behind the short wall of a nearby water fountain.

One protester carrying a drum chanted “peaceful, peaceful,” and others chanted along. As the gunfire continued, protesters set tires on fire to push the soldiers back.

Some protesters arrived in rickshaws, which have also been used by protesters to carry the wounded from the bloody clashes since Tuesday. A medical official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said five people were wounded, including some in the feet.

The unrest is the most serious challenge facing Iraq two years after the victory against Islamic State militants. The chaos also comes at a critical time for the 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 semiofficial Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, affiliated with parliament, put the death toll up until early Saturday at 94 with nearly 4,000 people wounded.

The U.N. envoy for Iraq appealed for an end to the violence and called for holding to account those responsible. “This must stop. I call on all parties to pause and reflect,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert tweeted Saturday night.

Abdul-Mahdi said security forces are “trying to carry out their duties” and have also incurred casualties. He said the violence has been “reciprocated.” He promised an investigation to determine who is firing live ammunition.

“We can’t accept the continuation of the situation like this,” Abdul-Mahdi told his Cabinet late Saturday in televised remarks. “We hear of snipers, firebombs, burning a policeman, a citizen.” He added that “not a political party office” or government office has been spared attacks.

“I am ready to go wherever our brotherly protesters are and meet them or send them envoys to other locations without any armed forces,” Abdul-Mahdi said. “I will go and meet them without weapons and sit with them for hours to listen to their demands.”

In return, Abdul-Mahdi requested an end to the protests.

Abdul-Mahdi announced a list of executive decisions focusing on providing low-income housing, unemployment benefits and vocational training. He also decreed that those killed in the protests, whether demonstrators or security, would be considered “martyrs” eligible for state benefits.

Earlier on Sunday, Baghdad’s streets were mostly quiet and traffic thin as an eerie calm prevailed. Students made it to schools and government employees returned to work. But burnt tires and debris littered thoroughfares while security remained heavily deployed in many neighborhoods.

Atheer Assem, a pizza restaurant owner, said he was able to shop Sunday, the start of the working week, for ingredients for his baked goods. But he said his clients have stopped coming to his shop because of the violence, even though it is in a neighborhood that has not witnessed any protests.

“The protests are making people afraid to go out,” he said, estimating his sales to have dropped by 70 percent.

Protesters have defied an around-the-clock curfew and authorities blocking the internet. On Saturday, in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, protesters defied a curfew still in place there. Thousands in Nasiriyah marched to the offices of three political parties and a lawmaker, torching them. In Diwaniyah, at least one protester was killed.

On Saturday, masked gunmen in black cars and wearing black clothes stormed the offices of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab news channel, beat up some of the employees and smashed equipment before they fled. The attack came after the station had received threats for several days.

Gunmen also attacked the offices of Iraq’s private Dajla and NRT news channels, according to employees at the stations. Both of those privately owned stations have been covering the daily protests.

An official at NRT said her station is so damaged that they won’t be able to broadcast any time soon. The attackers, said Sawra Abdul-Wahab, stole $250,000, laptop computers and mobile phones.