191004 Iraq
An anti-government protester flashes the victory sign during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq. Image Credit: AP

Baghdad - Iraq’s Adel Abdul Mahdi is facing the biggest test of his short premiership after clashes between security forces and protesters killed almost 100 people over five days.

Iraq’s Human Rights Commission said Saturday that 93 people have so far died in the outbreak of violence that also left almost 4,000 wounded. At least 200 people have been detained. Dozens of anti-government protesters took to the streets near Iraq’s oil ministry on Saturday, as gunfire broke out in central Baghdad.

Iraqi forces have clashed with demonstrators who took to the streets of Baghdad and other cities this week to protest against unemployment, government corruption and a lack of basic services. While similar grievances have repeatedly lead to bouts of unrest, particularly in the south, the latest flare-up is deadlier and more wide-spread.

The government has responded by firing tear gas and live ammunition, blocking the internet, imposing a curfew and closing the Iranian border shortly before a major pilgrimage to the Shiite Muslim shrines at Najaf and Karbala.

Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a key flashpoint during the protests, was open on Saturday morning but with a heavy security presence. The International Zone, home to embassies and key government buildings, has been sealed off as authorities brace for renewed demonstrations later in the day.

Abdul-Mahdi, a former finance minister, was picked by rival Shiite Muslim groups as a consensus candidate following parliamentary elections in 2018, but has struggled to form a strong government. He vowed earlier this week to create jobs for university graduates and said all contracts with foreign companies would stipulate that 50% of jobs should go to Iraqis.

The pledges were not enough to calm protesters.

Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, criticized both parliament and the government Friday for failing to answer the people’s needs.

Muqtada Al Sadr, a firebrand cleric who’s Sairoun party has 55 seats in parliament, announced that his bloc was suspending its participation in the assembly until the demands of the people were met, complicating efforts to defuse the crisis through an emergency session of lawmakers. Sadr called on Abdul-Mahdi to step aside and hold new elections.