As Deaths Mount in Iraq Protests, a Rocket Attack Raises New Questions

Iraqi PM calls for protests to allow a return to 'normal life'

Security forces have fired tear gas and both live and rubber bullets to keep the protesters back.

More than a dozen demonstrators had died in the capital Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra within 24 hours, medical sources told AFP on Friday.

Protesters still occupy part of Al Jumhuriyah (Republic) Bridge, the southernmost of the capital's bridges and the closest to the main protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

In Basra, seven protesters were killed in confrontations on Thursday and early Friday, with security forces trying to reopen roads blocked by sit-ins, medical sources said.

Iraq's Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi said on Saturday that although protests were important in bringing about reform, life in the country must be allowed to return to normal.

"But we put up more barricades so they won't enter Tahrir".

Abdul Mahdi promised electoral reform and said authorities would ban possession of weapons by non-state armed groups who have been accused of killing protesters, and that there would be investigations in demonstrator deaths.

Khazaali and Ameri are leading commanders in the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which has publicly backed the government after protests erupted.

Amnesty International said it has found the military-grade canisters were Serbian- and Iranian-made.

Doctors at hospitals have shown Reuters scans of tear gas canisters embedded in the skulls of dead protesters.

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The higher death toll includes two people who were killed Friday in the southern city of Basra during violent protests, the IHCR said.

Police and medics said four people were killed and almost 100 wounded in Baghdad on Saturday.

Public anger first focused on widespread corruption and a lack of jobs, then escalated into calls for the entire ruling system to be overturned.

Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC's second biggest producer, but one in five people live in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, according to the World Bank.

Many protesters have directed their rage at Abdel Mahdi, who came to power in October 2018 pledging to tackle those issues.

The premier has proposed a series of reforms to appease protesters, including hiring drives, raising welfare and launching infrastructure projects.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani said on Friday that Iraqi government has a unique opportunity to respond to demonstrators' demands, while warning of internal and external parties to exploit the demonstrations to achieve their goals.

Iraq, exhausted by decades of conflict and sanctions, had enjoyed relative calm after Islamic State was defeated in 2017.

They retook the Al Sinek, Al Shuhada and Al Ahrar bridges over the River Tigris that link the east bank, where the main protest camps are located, with neighbourhoods on the west bank that are home to government offices and foreign embassies.

On Friday, around a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah base - an Iraqi military installation where U.S. troops are stationed near the northern city of Mosul - according to local sources.

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