The Guardian: The death toll from days of violent demonstrations across Iraq has risen to 44 as unrest rapidly spread across the country despite a plea for calm from the prime minister.

In an overnight TV address, Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he understood the frustration of the public but that there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems. He pledged to make reforms, but this drew a scornful response from demonstrators.

The violent protests have escalated by the day since they first erupted on Tuesday, sweeping across the country spontaneously without public backing from any organised political group and taking the authorities by surprise.

Security forces have fired live ammunition at crowds of mainly young men, and gunmen have occasionally fired back. Hundreds of people have been wounded, including members of the security forces as well as demonstrators.

Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital, Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba, north of the capital. Other deaths were reported in two more southern cities, Hilla and Najaf.

Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and north-east and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad’s densely populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya, the city worst hit by the violence.

Protesters in Baghdad gathered in darkness by a bonfire set among the flaming wreckage of an armoured vehicle, across the Tigris River from the main government compound.

“They are shooting live fire at the Iraqi people and the revolutionaries. We can cross the bridge and take them out of the Green Zone!” a man shouted to Reuters TV.

The unrest, fuelled by popular rage over poor living standards and corruption, is Iraq’s biggest security challenge since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017. It is also the first test for Abdul-Mahdi, installed last year by Shia parties that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

It comes on the eve of the Arbaeen Shia pilgrimage, which in recent years has drawn as many as 20 million worshippers, trekking for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering, 10 times the size of the Mecca Hajj.