Iraq’s Prime Minister has called on anti-government protesters to reopen roads after a month of rallies demanding wide-ranging political change.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi called for markets, factories, schools and universities to reopen after days of protests in the capital and across the mostly Shiite south.
He said the threat to oil facilities and the closure of roads had cost the country “billions” of dollars and contributed to price increases that affect everyone.
Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square and across southern Iraq in recent days, calling for the overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Protesters have also taken over a large tower in the square that was abandoned after it was damaged in the war.
Thousands of students have missed classes to take part in the street rallies, blaming the political elite for widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
Earlier on Sunday, protesters blocked roads around their main protest site with burning tyres 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 under way since October 17, and have repeatedly blocked major roads in order to ramp up pressure on authorities.
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 on Saturday.
The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, meanwhile, said Siba al-Mahdawi, an activist and physician who has taken part in the protests, was abducted on Saturday night by an unknown group.
The semi-official body called on the government and the security forces to reveal her whereabouts. Ms Al-Mahdawi was one of several doctors who have volunteered to provide medical aid to the protesters.