BAGHDAD – Iraq's president on Thursday called for the drafting of a new election law and said he would approve early elections once it is enacted, bowing to anti-government protesters while insisting that the sweeping changes they are demanding be carried out in a constitutional way.
Iraq has seen two waves of mass protests this month, with at least 250 protesters killed as security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas in Baghdad and across the Shiite-majority south. The protesters have demanded the resignation of the government and the overhaul of the political system put in place after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion
In a prime-time address, President Barham Salih expressed support for the protesters and their demands. He said Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is prepared to resign once political leaders agree on a replacement.
A new election law that would break up the domination of entrenched political factions — many of which are tied to Iran — has been one of the main demands of protesters, along with fighting corruption, an overhaul of the judicial system and improved job opportunities and basic services.
But the process Salih laid out could take weeks or months, and it was unclear whether it would meet the protesters' demands.
Salih said his office has already started working on a new election law expected to be submitted to parliament next week. Many protesters have called for a new election law that is more representative, rather than the current one they say is tailored to serve the powerful blocs in parliament.
"The current status quo is no longer sustainable," he said, calling for wide-ranging reforms.
Salih, a veteran Kurdish politician who assumed office a year ago, stressed the importance of confining all weapons in the hands of the government, an apparent reference to shadowy forces who have attacked protesters in recent days in Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
"What is needed are quick measures to hold those criminals responsible for the excessive violence used during the recent protests and to bring them to justice," he said.
The demonstrators meanwhile clashed with security forces on a second bridge leading to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, with at least one person killed and more than 60 wounded.
Demonstrators have gathered in the capital's Tahrir Square since the protests resumed nearly a week ago and have repeatedly clashed with security forces on the Joumhouriya Bridge. The clashes have now spread to the nearby Sanak Bridge, which also leads to the Green Zone, where the government is headquartered.
Security and medical officials confirmed the latest casualties. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters.
Amnesty International said Iraqi security forces are using military-grade tear gas grenades and firing them directly into crowds of protesters, causing horrific wounds .
"This has had devastating results, in multiple cases piercing the victims' skulls, resulting in gruesome wounds and death after the grenades embed inside their heads," said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at the London-based rights group.
"The lack of accountability for unlawful killings and injuries by security forces, responsible for the vast majority of casualties this past month, is sending the message that they can kill and maim with impunity," she said.
Neither the violence nor nighttime curfews have deterred the protesters, who continue to gather by the tens of thousands to vent their frustration at the political class. The protesters mainly come from Iraq's Shiite majority and the demonstrations are directed at the Shiite-dominated government.
Iraq suffers from high unemployment and poor public services despite being an OPEC member with the world's fourth largest proven oil reserves. The sectarian power-sharing government put in place after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has given rise to an entrenched political class even though the country regularly holds elections.
Under an unofficial agreement, Iraq's presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni. Both Salih and Abdul-Mahdi are longstanding members of the political class that has dominated Iraq since 2003.
Protesters have been joined by supporters of an influential Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has called on the government to resign. The demonstrations are the biggest security challenge Iraq has faced since it declared victory over the Islamic State group nearly two years ago.
Krauss reported from Beirut.