BAGHDAD — Security forces opened fire directly at hundreds of anti-government demonstrators Friday in central Baghdad, killing at least 17 protesters and injuring dozens, hours after Iraq's top Shiite cleric warned both sides to end four days of violence "before it's too late."
The latest deaths raised the number of people killed in clashes during ongoing protests to 59 and marked a sharp escalation in the use of force against unarmed protesters.
But neither the government nor demonstrators appear to be willing to back down from unrest that has presented the most serious challenge for Iraq since the defeat of the Islamic State group two years ago.
Spontaneous rallies, which began Tuesday, started as mostly young demonstrators took to the streets demanding jobs, improved services like electricity and water, and an end to corruption in the oil-rich country.
In a desperate attempt to curb massive rallies, authorities blocked the internet and imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the capital.
But the protesters, many of whom camped on the streets Thursday night, gathered before noon near Tahrir in defiance of the curfew.
Following Friday prayers around sunset, the number of protesters grew to more than 1,000 and forces opened fire in side streets to prevent more people from reaching the square, which was sealed off.
Security forces hit two people directly in the head and killed them, according to witnesses as well as security and hospital officials. The military's media arm also said two policemen and two civilians were killed by sniper fire.
"There's no electricity, no jobs, people are dying of starvation, and people are sick. It is a curse," said one young protester, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Rasoul Saray a 34-year-old unemployed Baghdad resident who wore a green mask, vowed to continue protesting despite the crackdown.
"I am taking part in the demonstrations because of unemployment and corruption," Saray said.
As a group of Iraqi journalists were interviewing another protester in the square, a policeman opened fire and wounded the youth in the leg. None of the journalists were hit.
On Friday, in his first comments since the protests began, Iraq's most senior Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged both sides to end the violence and blamed politicians, particularly lawmakers, for failing to enact promised reforms related to the economy and corruption.
"The government and the political sides have not fulfilled the demands of the people to fight corruption," al-Sistani said in a sermon delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Al-Sistani, who is looked to by many across Iraq's predominantly Shiite south for guidance, urged the government to "carry out its duty" to ease people's suffering and reiterated his call for a committee of technocrats to make recommendations on fighting corruption as a way out of the current crisis. He also singled out the leaders of the two biggest parliament blocs.
In another blow to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's year-old administration, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his government to resign and hold early elections, saying in a statement that the shedding the blood of "Iraqis cannot be ignored."
Earlier, he asked members of his coalition, which controls the largest bloc in parliament, to boycott sessions until the government puts forth a program acceptable to the people.
Abdul-Mahdi has given orders for the curfew to be lifted as of 5 a.m. local time Saturday.
In an address to the nation, he said the protesters' "legitimate demands" had been heard, adding that the security measures used against the demonstrations were like "bitter medicine" that needs to be swallowed.
He said there was "no magic solution" to Iraq's problems but pledged to work on laws granting poor families a basic income and fighting corruption.
Abdul-Mahdi's government 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.
But in Nasiriyah, protester Haidar Hamid dismissed the prime minister's speech, saying he was looking to Shiite religious leaders for a resolution.
"If the government is not dissolved, we will avenge our martyrs," said Hamid, who is 32 and unemployed.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.