Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi urged on Sunday an end to protests, saying they are effecting the country’s trade and economic activities.
In statement published on Sunday evening, he said the protests which “shook the political system” have achieved their purpose and must stop because they were costing the economy “billions of dollars”.
More than 250 people have been killed since the protests in Baghdad and the south of the country started in early October, driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption. The protests have grown and demonstrators are now calling for sweeping changes, as well as the government's resignation.
“Threatening the oil interests and blocking roads leading to Iraq’s ports is causing big losses exceeding billions of dollars,” said Abdul Mahdi, warning that unrest was pushing up prices of goods.
Operations at Iraq’s main Gulf port, Umm Qasr, near the oil-rich city of Basra, which receives the bulk of Iraq’s imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar, have been at a complete standstill since Wednesday.
Thousands of protesters have blocked all roads leading to the port. Police on Saturday used live fire and tear gas to try and disperse protesters and open the roads leading to the port but they failed to force them to leave.
Despite the country’s oil wealth, many people live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education.
On Sunday, dozens of protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in the city of Karbala, scaling the concrete barriers ringing the building, bringing down an Iranian flag and replacing it with the Iraqi flag, eyewitnesses said.
Security forces fired live ammunition to disperse protesters trying to scale the walls of the consulate in the southern city and torch it.
AFP correspondents witnessed protesters left motionless after suffering gunshot wounds, and the forensic medicine department later confirmed three people died.
Others threw rocks or shot fireworks over the walls into the consulate, then set fire to tires at the gates of the building as police officers looked on.
As the crowds grew, heavy gunfire and volleys of tear gas rang out.
"They're not firing up in the air. They intend to kill, not disperse," said one young protester wearing a medical mask to protect himself from the tear gas.
"They're protecting the Iranian embassy while all we want is a country. Why are they killing their own countrymen for another country?"
The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that Iraqis accuse of pillaging the country's wealth while the country grows poorer. But protesters have also directed their rage at neighboring Iran and militias tied to it.
Earlier Sunday, protesters blocked roads around their main protest site with burning tires and barbed wire, unfurling a banner at one roadblock reading: "Roads closed by order of the people."
They appeared to be borrowing a tactic from Lebanon, where similar anti-government demonstrations have been underway since October 17, and have repeatedly blocked major roads in order to ramp up pressure on authorities.
Iraqi security forces have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the protesters, killing at least 256 people in two waves of demonstrations since early October. Since the protests restarted on October 25 after a brief hiatus, 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.
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 the demonstrators as "human shields" while attacking security forces.
The prime minister had met with top security officials late Saturday.
Last week, President Barham Salih said the PM is willing to resign once political leaders agree on a replacement. He also called for a new election law and said he would approve early elections once it is enacted.
Abdul Mahdi's statement did not say anything about resigning, and even if the new electoral law is quickly approved, the process of holding elections and forming a new government could take several months.