Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has called on protesters to halt sit-ins and help restore a sense of normalcy across the country amid ongoing mass demonstrations demanding economic and political reform.
The protests, which began in early October and “shook the political system”, have achieved their purpose and must stop affecting the country’s trade and economic activities, Abdul Mahdi said in a statement late on Sunday.
“Threatening the oil interests and blocking roads leading to Iraq’s ports is causing big losses exceeding billions of dollars,” he said, warning that unrest would push up the price of goods.
Abdul Mahdi called for markets, factories, schools and universities to reopen after protests resumed in the capital and across Shia-majority provinces in the south on October 25 after a brief lull.
Earlier on Sunday, protesters blocked roads around their main protest site in Baghdad with burning tyres and barbed wire, unfurling a banner at one roadblock reading: “Roads closed by order of the people.”
South of Basra, they blocked the highway leading to the Umm Qasr port, which receives the bulk of Iraq’s imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar.
Despite the country’s oil wealth, many people live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education.
On Sunday evening, dozens of protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in the Shia holy city of Karbala, scaling the concrete barriers surrounding the building, bringing down the Iranian flag and replacing it with the Iraqi one.
At least three protesters were killed during the attack when security forces opened fire, security and medical sources said on Monday.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets across the country, calling for the overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.
The protesters have also vented their anger at a ruling elite, which they accuse of pillaging the country’s wealth, as well as neighbouring Iran and the powerful Iraqi Shia militias which are backed by Tehran.
In his statement, Abdul Mahdi differentiated between peaceful protesters, who he said had turned the demonstrations into “popular festivals” that bring the nation together, and “outlaws” who he said had used demonstrators as “human shields” while attacking security forces.
The prime minister had met with top security officials late on Saturday.
On Thursday, President Barham Salih said Abdul Mahdi was willing to resign once political leaders agreed on a replacement. He also called for a new election law and said he would approve early elections once it was enacted.
In a meeting with the heads of trade unions on Sunday, Salih said the new election law would be submitted to parliament this week.
Abdul Mahdi’s statement did not mention the resignation, and even if the new electoral law is quickly approved, the process of holding elections and forming a new government could take several months.
The protests in Karbala, Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq have often turned violent, with security forces opening fire and protesters torching government buildings and headquarters of Iran-backed militias.
More than 250 people have been killed in the security crackdown.
Since the demonstrations restarted late last month, there have been near-continuous clashes on two bridges leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the headquarters of the government and home to several foreign embassies.
Rights group Amnesty International last week criticised security forces for using “previously unseen types of tear gas grenade to kill rather than disperse protesters”, which it said led to at least five deaths of protesters.
“All the evidence points to Iraqi security forces deploying these military-grade grenades against protesters in Baghdad, apparently aiming for their heads or bodies at point-blank range. This has had devastating results, in multiple cases piercing the victims’ skulls, resulting in gruesome wounds and death after the grenades embed inside their heads,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International.
“The lack of accountability for unlawful killings and injuries by security forces, responsible for the vast majority of casualties this past month, is sending the message that they can kill and maim with impunity. The authorities must rein in the police, ensure prompt, impartial, effective investigations, and prosecute those responsible.”
Abdul Mahdi said that security forces are under strict orders not to use live ammunition or other lethal weapons against protesters.
On Saturday, police used live fire and tear gas to try to disperse protesters and open the roads leading to the Umm Qasr port but they failed to force them to leave.