BAGHDAD (AP) -- An eerie calm prevailed Sunday in the Iraqi capital Baghdad at the start of the work week, following a bloody night when security forces opened fire to break up anti-government protests, killing at least 19.
Meanwhile, Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called on protesters to end their street rallies, saying he is ready to meet with them and hear their demands. He said there were orders for the security forces not to use live ammunition, except in strict cases of self-defense.
Abdul-Mahdi spoke late Saturday as one of the bloodiest in five consecutive days of unrest unfolded in Baghdad.
Baghdad has been at the center of anti-government protests that have quickly spread to the country's south. At least 84 were killed, including more than 50 in Baghdad, since Tuesday during protests that began with demanding jobs and an end to corruption and now include calls for justice for those killed in the protests.
The unrest is the most serious challenge facing Iraq two years after the victory against Islamic State militants. The chaos also comes at a critical time for the government, which has been caught in the middle of increasing U.S.-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
On Saturday in Baghdad, security forces opened fire on protesters gathering in streets at least a mile from Tahrir square, killing at least 19.
The U.N. envoy for Iraq appealed for an end to the violence and holding to account those responsible for it. "This must stop. I call on all parties to pause and reflect," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert tweeted Saturday night.
Abdul-Mahdi said security forces are "trying to carry out their duties" and have also incurred casualties, saying the violence has been "reciprocated." He promised an investigation to determine who is firing live ammunition.
"We can't accept the continuation of the situation like this," Abdul-Mahdi told his Cabinet late Saturday in televised remarks. "We hear of snipers, firebombs, burning a policeman, a citizen." He added that "not a political party office" or government office has been spared attacks.
"I am ready to go wherever our brotherly protesters are and meet them or send them envoys to other locations without any armed forces," Abdul-Mahdi said. "I will go and meet them without weapons and sit with them for hours to listen to their demands."
The prime minister said he requested "in return" an end to protests in the capital and other provinces.
Abdul-Mahdi announced a list of executive decisions, focusing on providing low-income housing, unemployment benefits and vocational training. He also decreed that those killed in the protests, whether demonstrators or security, would be considered "martyrs" eligible for state benefits.
On Sunday, Baghdad's streets were mostly quiet and traffic thin. Students made it to schools and government employees returned to work. But burnt tires and debris littered thoroughfares while security remained heavily deployed in many neighborhoods.
Armored vehicles blocked access from as far as four kilometers (2.5 miles) to Tahrir Square, the central converging point for the rallies.
Protesters have taken to the streets in the afternoons since last week, defying an around-the-clock curfew and authorities blocking the internet. On Saturday, in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, protesters defied a curfew still in place there. Thousands in Nasiriyah marched to the offices of three political parties and a lawmaker, torching them. In Diwaniyah, at least one protester was killed.
In a new development amid the unrest, masked gunmen in black cars and wearing black clothes stormed the offices of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab news channel, beat up some of the employees and smashed equipment before they fled. The attack came after the station had received threats for several days.
Gunmen also attacked the offices of Iraq's private Dajla and NRT news channels, according to employees at the stations. Both of those stations are privately owned which have been covering the daily protests.
An official at NRT said her station is so damaged that they won't be able to broadcast any time soon. The attackers, said Sawra Abdul-Wahab, stole $250,000, laptop computers and mobile phones.