Iraqi forces kill several protesters in Baghdad, Basra

A woman is helped across the street as Iraqi security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters during ongoing protests in Baghdad on Thursday

In the southern city of Basra, two people were killed as security forces dispersed hundreds of demonstrators outside the local government headquarters on Friday, police and medics told Reuters.

"Abdel Mahdi's position means more to him than the blood of Iraqis", charged a tribal dignitary who was protesting in Baghdad on Friday.

Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric urged political leaders Friday to find a way out of the current cycle of anti-government protests and a subsequent security crackdown that has left more than 250 people dead, saying the country faces "great risks" if it continues.

The country is beginning to feel the pinch of the unrest, which started in Baghdad and spread to southern cities.

"The biggest responsibility is on the security forces", a representative of Sistani said in a sermon after Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala. "The speech won't make a difference", said one woman protesting in Baghdad whose son was killed in recent clashes.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said security forces were instructed to use force if protesters got close to important government buildings including the central bank.

More than 280 people have been killed since the protests over unemployment, poor services and endemic corruption began in Baghdad on October 1 and quickly spread to southern provinces.

Protesters, mostly unemployed youth, blame a political elite that has ruled Iraq since the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in a 2003 US-led invasion, and demand a complete overhaul of the political system.

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Public anger erupted last month over widespread corruption and lack of jobs, then escalated into calls for the entire ruling system to be overturned. Injuries and deaths have been reported among both protesters and security forces in Dhi Qar.

Fired at point-blank range, the tear gas canisters have pierced protesters' skulls and chests, killing at least 16 people, according to the United Nations.

He also warned the protesters against being exploited by "internal and external forces" that seek to destabilize Iraq.

A crackdown by authorities against mostly unarmed protesters has killed more than 250 people since unrest broke out on October 1 over lack of jobs, services and an infrastructure wrecked by decades of conflict, sanctions and corruption.

The protesters have also rejected foreign interference in Iraq, which has always been caught between its two main allies and bitter rivals the United States and Iran.

The shooting in Basra occurred around midnight on Thursday and wounded around 120 people, according to medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Anti-government demonstrators had blocked roads at Umm Qasr commodities port, halting operations for more than a week. A similar tactic is being used in Lebanon's ongoing anti-government demonstrations.

"These trucks usually transport the oil daily, but have been unable to do so since Tuesday because of what's happening in Basra", the source said.

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