Fresh clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters broke out on Friday killing at least three people, despite a call for calm by the country's top Shi'ite cleric, as authorities grapple with the nation's biggest crisis in years.
Security forces fired tear gas and threw stun grenades into crowds of demonstrators wearing helmets and makeshift body armor on a main road in central Baghdad, sending protesters scattering, some wounded.
One protester was killed by a tear gas canister fired directly into his head, a Reuters witness said. In the southern city of Basra, two people were killed as security forces dispersed hundreds of demonstrators outside the local government headquarters, police and medics said.
More than 280 people have been killed since the protests over unemployment, poor services and endemic corruption began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and quickly spread to southern provinces.
Police, the military and paramilitary groups have fired live rounds at mostly unarmed protesters.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who only speaks on politics in times of crisis and wields enormous influence over public opinion in Shi'ite-majority Iraq, held security forces accountable for any violent escalation and urged the government to respond as quickly as possible to demonstrators' demands.
"The biggest responsibility is on the security forces," a representative of Sistani said in a sermon after Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala. "They must avoid using excessive force with peaceful protesters."
Many of the demonstrators, some of whom view Sistani as part of the political and religious system they say is the cause of many Iraqis' misery, took little solace from the cleric's words.
"He says he's supporting protests and that we should keep going but he hasn't helped. The speech won't make a difference," said one woman protesting in Baghdad whose son was killed in recent clashes.
"I'm the mother of a student. They took his life," she said, giving her name as Umm al-Shaheed, Arabic for mother of the martyr.
The demonstrators, mostly unemployed youths, demand an overhaul of the political system and a corrupt ruling class which has dominated state institutions since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In Basra, four people were killed on Thursday and two on Friday as security forces dispersed protesters. A third person wounded in clashes at Umm Qasr port two days earlier also died from his injuries, officials said.