BAGHDAD (AP) —
Iraqi protesters pressed on with angry anti-government rallies in the capital and across several provinces for a fifth day Saturday, setting government offices on fire and ignoring appeals for calm from political and religious leaders. Security agencies fatally shot 19 protesters and wounded more than three dozen in a sustained deadly response that has claimed more than 80 lives since the upheaval began.
The semiofficial Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, affiliated with the parliament, put the death toll at 94. It said nearly 4,000 people have been wounded since Tuesday, when mostly young demonstrators spontaneously initiated the rallies to demand jobs, improvements to electricity, water and other services, and an end to corruption in the oil-rich nation.
The violent deadlock presented the conflict-scarred nation with its most serious challenge since the defeat of the Islamic State group two years ago and deepened the political crisis of a country still struggling with the legacy of multiple, unfinished wars since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
“It has been 16 years of corruption and injustice,” said Abbas Najm, a 43-year-old unemployed engineer who was part of a rally Saturday in the square. “We are not afraid of bullets or the death of martyrs. We will keep going and we won’t back down.”
Amid the chaos, masked gunmen stormed the office of three TV news stations in Baghdad. Gunmen in black cars and wearing black clothes stormed the offices of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab news channel on Abu Nawas Street, beat up some of the employees and smashed equipment before they fled, said Majed Hamid, the channel’s Baghdad correspondent. Hamid said the station had been receiving 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 stations are privately owned.
Scrambling to contain the demonstrations, Iraqi leaders called an emergency session of parliament Saturday to discuss the protesters’ demands. But they lacked a quorum due to a boycott called by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of parliament’s largest bloc. On Friday, al-Sadr called on Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s government to resign and hold early elections, saying the shedding of blood of Iraqis “cannot be ignored.”
Abdul-Mahdi said in an address to the nation that the protesters’ “legitimate demands” had been heard, but he defended the deadly response of security forces as a “bitter medicine” that was necessary for the country to swallow.