Iraq security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas at demonstrators Saturday, killing 19 and wounding dozens in Baghdad alone on the fifth day of anti-government protests to rock the country.
The death toll from protests in Baghdad and in several southern Iraqi cities has risen to nearly 100. Protesters have largely ignored government and religious leaders' calls for calm. In Baghdad, protesters faced off with security forces in several neighborhoods and burned tires in the street.
The protests have grown from initial demands for jobs and improved city services, such as water and power, to calls now to end corruption in the oil-rich country of nearly 40 million people.
Demonstrations continued late Saturday in the capital and areas of southern Iraq.
The semiofficial Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, affiliated with the parliament, said, since the protests began Tuesday, at least 94 people have been killed and nearly 4,000 wounded.
The United Nations' top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, urged an end to the violence Saturday.
"Five days of reported deaths and injuries: this must stop," Hennis-Plasschaert said.
Several groups of masked gunmen also attacked three TV news stations in Baghdad, including the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya and Iraq's privately owned Dajla and NRT news channels, smashing equipment and assaulting employees.
The Iraqi parliament Saturday called an emergency session to discuss how to respond to the violence and the protesters' demands. However, they lacked a quorum.
Saturday’s protests came one day after former Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, called on the government to resign and said “early elections should be held under U.N. supervision."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a statement Friday saying, "The deaths of civilians and the growing number of wounded at the ongoing protests across the country is particularly worrying, as is the use of firearms for restoring public order."
The ICRC has called on both sides to show restraint as it monitors developments on the ground.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said Friday the protesters' "legitimate concerns" had been heard. But he also defended the security measures, including the temporary curfew imposed, calling them "difficult choices" but necessary, like "bitter medicine" that had to be swallowed.
Since Tuesday, the demonstrations have spread in Baghdad and in areas south of the capital.
The protests are the first major challenge to Abdul-Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago.
The government blamed the violence on "groups of riot inciters" and said security forces worked to protect the safety of peaceful protesters.
Iraq's parliament has ordered a probe into the violence.
Many Iraqi citizens blame politicians and government officials for the corruption that has prevented the country from rebounding from years of sectarian violence and the battle to defeat Islamic State militants, who at one point controlled large areas in the northern and western part of the country.
At his weekly Cabinet meeting earlier this week, the prime minister released a statement promising jobs for graduates. He also ordered the oil ministry and other government agencies to apply a 50 percent quota for local workers in future contracts with foreign countries.