BAGHDAD: The death toll in Iraq from weeks of anti-government unrest rose on Friday to at least 408 people killed, mostly unarmed protesters, a Reuters count based on police and medical sources showed.
Several people died of wounds sustained in clashes on Thursday with security forces in the southern city of Nassiriya, hospital sources said, bringing the number of people killed there to at least 46 and the total nationwide to 408 since Oct. 1.
Thousands of mourners took to the streets of Nassiriya, defying a curfew to bury their dead after the mass shooting.
Security and military leaders told Arab News that most of the violence, including the burning of the Iranian Consulate, “was orchestrated and implemented” by a number of security agencies associated with the Iraqi Interior Ministry and the Popular Mobilization Security Directorate.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has promised electoral and anti-corruption reform but barely begun delivering while security forces have shot dead hundreds of mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Baghdad and southern cities.
The protests, which began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and have spread through southern cities, are the most complex challenge facing the Shiite-dominated ruling class that has controlled state institutions and patronage networks since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled long-time Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein.
Young, mostly Shiite protesters say politicians are corrupt, beholden to foreign powers — especially Iran — and they blame them for a failure to recover from years of conflict despite relative calm since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017.
Security forces opened fire on protesters who had gathered on a bridge in Nassiriya before dawn, medical sources said. Some 22 were killed and 180 wounded, they said.
A curfew was imposed in Najaf after protesters stormed and set fire to the Iranian consulate late on Wednesday. Businesses and government offices remained closed in the city, state media reported.
“The burning of the consulate last night was a brave act and a reaction from the Iraqi people — we don’t want the Iranians,” said Ali, a protester in Najaf. “There will be revenge from Iran I’m sure, they’re still here and the security forces are going to keep shooting us.”
A protester who witnessed the burning of the consulate said security forces had opened fire to try to stop it.
“All the riot police in Najaf and the security forces started shooting at us, as if we were burning Iraq as a whole,” he said, declining to give his name.
‘INFILTRATORS AND SABOTEURS’
The military commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups whose most powerful factions are close to Tehran, said the groups would use full force against anyone trying to attack Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, who is based in Najaf.
“We will cut the hand of anyone trying to get near (Grand Ayatollah Ali) Al-Sistani,” commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis said in a statement on the PMF website.
Observers said the events in Najaf would likely bring a tough response, rather than pushing the government into enacting reforms.
“Apart from casual statements ... the government has not announced any plan (or) given any clear account of what measures it will take,” said Dhiaa Al-Asadi, adviser to powerful populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. “Initiatives are going to be scarce.”
Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, said the government might use the burning of the Iranian consulate as a pretext for an even more heavy-handed crackdown.
“The downside from the protesters’ point of view is this might reinforce the government’s narrative that protesters are infiltrators, saboteurs and up to no good,” he said.
“It sends a message to Iran but also works to the advantage of people like Muhandis ... (giving) a pretext to clamp down and framing what happened as a threat against Sistani.”
Sistani rarely speaks on political issues but traditionally wields enormous influence over public opinion, especially in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland. He has used Friday sermons in recent weeks to urge the government to enact real reform and stop killing demonstrators.
Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly unarmed protesters. Some demonstrators have lobbed petrol bombs, bricks and fired slingshots at police.
Authorities set up “crisis cells” in several provinces to try to restore order, a military statement said on Thursday. They would be led by provincial governors but include military leaders who would take charge of local security forces.