More than 4,000 people have also been injured since the protests against chronic unemployment, poor public services and widespread corruption erupted in the capital on Tuesday.

The death toll from mass protests in Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq rose to almost 100 on Saturday as the unrest entered its fifth day, parliament's human rights commission said.

More than 4,000 people have also been injured since the protests against chronic unemployment, poor public services and widespread corruption erupted in the capital on Tuesday, the commission said.

A total of 540 demonstrators have been arrested, of whom nearly 200 remain in custody, the panel added.

Authorities also lifted a days-long curfew in Baghdad that protesters had defied.

Traffic ran as normal through the Iraqi capital and streets and main squares were otherwise quiet. 

Concrete barriers blocked off areas where protesters had gathered in their thousands during the week.

With more than 1,600 people wounded, the toll may rise further.

On Friday, security forces opened fire directly at hundreds of anti-government demonstrators in central Baghdad, hours after Iraq's top Shia cleric warned both sides to end four days of violence "before it's too late."

The rising death toll marked a sharp escalation in the use of force against unarmed protesters.

The violence showed both sides to be unwilling to back down from the unrest that marks the most serious challenge for Iraq since the defeat of the Daesh two years ago.

TRT World's Can Hasasu reports from Baghdad.

'Legitimate demands'

In a televised address to the country early Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the protesters' "legitimate demands" had been heard, adding that the security measures used against the demonstrations were like "bitter medicine" that needs to be swallowed.

Authorities have shut the internet and imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the capital in a desperate attempt to curb the rallies.

Gunfire rang out in Baghdad on Friday, as security forces battled and chased groups of protesters. Security forces fired directly at people trying to reach the central Tahrir Square, which was sealed off, hitting two protesters directly in the head and killing them, according to witnesses as well as to security and hospital officials.

The military's media arm said two policemen and two civilians were killed by sniper fire.

The protesters, many of whom had camped on the streets overnight, gathered before noon near Tahrir in defiance of Abdul-Mahdi's call and the curfew announced a day earlier.

Around sunset, following Friday prayers, the number of protesters grew to more than 1,000 as security forces opened fire in side streets to prevent more people from reaching the square.

A man inspects damages in an office of Iraq's Hezbollah party in the central Iraqi city of Najaf after protesters set it on fire during demonstrations against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, on October 3, 2019.
A man inspects damages in an office of Iraq's Hezbollah party in the central Iraqi city of Najaf after protesters set it on fire during demonstrations against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, on October 3, 2019. (AFP)

The unrest, fuelled by popular rage over poor living standards and corruption, is the first major challenge for Abdul Mahdi, who took office last year backed by Shia parties that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

It also comes on the eve of the Arbaeen Shia pilgrimage, when as many as 20 million worshippers are expected to journey for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world's biggest annual gathering, 10 times the size of the Mecca Hajj.

The Iraqi capital was mostly quiet ahead of Muslim Friday prayers. An ongoing curfew, defied by thousands of demonstrators on Thursday, saw the army and special forces deploy around central squares and streets.

Sistani endorses protesters 

Iraq's most senior Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani urged both sides to end the violence, and he blamed politicians, particularly lawmakers, for failing to enact promised reforms on the economy and corruption.

The comments were his first since the protests began, and many across Iraq's predominantly Shia south had looked to the influential cleric for guidance.

The endorsement from Sistani prompted celebratory gunfire from protesters and piled new pressure on Mahdi as he battles to quell the intensifying unrest.

Many had been waiting for a signal from Sistani in his Friday prayer sermon read out by representatives in Shia holy places across Iraq before deciding whether to join other protesters in defying the daytime curfew in force in Baghdad and other cities.

Sistani said the government needed to act now "before it's too late" to address popular grievances or the protests would simply intensify.

The crisis required "clear and practical steps" or the protesters will "simply come back even stronger," he said.

The government "must do what it can to improve public services, find work for the unemployed, end clientelism, deal with the corruption issue and send those implicated in it to prison," Sistani added, listing some of the protesters' main grievances.

Internet blackout

Tensions have been exacerbated by a near-total internet blackout as authorities seek to prevent protesters from communicating with each other or posting footage of the chaotic demonstrations.

In Abdul Mahdi's first public address since the protests began, the embattled premier made a televised speech early on Friday as heavy gunfire rang out across Baghdad.

He said the turmoil could lead to "the destruction of the state, the entire state," but refrained from directly responding to the protesters' demands.

Instead, he defended his government's record over its first year in office and pledged a monthly stipend for families in need, while asking for time to implement a reform agenda promised last year.

Other leaders have been more supportive of the protesters, with President Barham Saleh urging the security forces to respect their right to peacefully demonstrate.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies