At least 28 people have reportedly been shot dead by security forces across Iraq as protesters torched the Iranian embassy in the southern city of Najaf.
A curfew was imposed in the city following the incident, which led the Iranian government to demand a “firm response” from its Iraqi counterpart.
Businesses and government offices were closed, state media reported.
Iran has blamed Iraqi security forces for allowing its embassy in Najaf to be torched by protesters on Wednesday night, as Baghdad launches another bloody crackdown on the south of the country. Iran has also demanded the Baghdad government take decisive action against the protesters, with foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi condemning the attack.
Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, as commander in chief of the armed forces, dispatched military chiefs to several restive provinces to “restore order” there, the military said in a statement.
One eyewitness said that security forces had opened fire with tear gas on the protesters following the attack on the consulate.
He said Tuk-Tuk drivers had driven the injured to main square in the city where medical volunteers were helping take care of the wounded.
“[There are] more than 70 volunteers from different medical careers and they can give enough care to that big numbers of the protesters, as the government could not do so,” said Karar Al-Assaf, from Najaf.
He said the burning of the consulate was a “message sent by the people to the government that they refuse the Iranian presence in all Iraq, including the Shia-majority regions.”
“From time to time, Iraqis renew their anger against the Iranian role in Iraq…Iran has to realise Iraqis from south to north are against any Iranian presence” he added.
The torching of the consulate escalated violence in Iraq after weeks of mass demonstrations that aim to bring down a government seen as endemically corrupt and backed by Tehran.
It was the strongest expression yet of the anti-Iranian sentiment of Iraqi demonstrators, who have taken to the streets for weeks in Baghdad and the Shia-majority south.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi implicitly criticised the Iraqi government’s failure to prevent the incident.
“The Iraqi government is responsible to secure safety of diplomatic missions and diplomats in Iraq… Tehran strongly condemns the attack and demands the Iraqi government’s firm response to the aggressors,” state TV quoted Mousavi as saying on Thursday.
Iran’s state news agency IRNA said staff at the consulate, who had evacuated shortly before demonstrators broke in, were “safe and unharmed”.
The Iraqi government has condemned the attack.
Officials in Iraq’s southern Nasiriyah province also announced they were imposing a city-wide curfew on Thursday after a number of people were shot dead in a crackdown on anti-government rallies.
At least 24 people died when troops opened fire on demonstrators who blocked a bridge in the southern city of Nassiriya before dawn on Thursday. Medical sources said dozens of others were wounded.
Four others were killed in the capital Baghdad, where security forces opened fire with live ammunition and rubber bullets against protesters near a bridge over the Tigris river.
Security forces were deployed around the edges of the city, searching all cars and people trying to enter, a correspondent for AFP said.
Activists on social media put out calls for locals to donate to blood banks to help the injured.
Military commanders dispatched
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has dispatched military commanders to several provinces swept up by the protests in a bid to “restore order”.
Authorities said “crisis cells” in the provinces would be led by provincial governors but would include military leaders who would take charge of local security and military forces.
However, Lieutenant General Jamil al-Shammari, head of one of the crisis cells in Nasiriyah was reportedly removed from his role only hours after being appointed, following a request from the governor of Dhi Qar province.
According to Alsumaria TV, Adel al-Dakhili blamed Shammari for causing the deaths of protesters.
“We call on the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to remove Lieutenant General Jamil al-Shammari from the province for disturbing public security and causing dozens of deaths and injuries,” said.
Shammari was previously sacked from his role as Basra Operation Commander in September 2018 after the deaths of protesters in the southern province at the hands of security forces earlier that month.
Protesters in Basra burnt down the Iranian consulate in that city in July 2018. However, this was blamed by some on “infiltrators” attempting to provoke the security forces.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy leader of the paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi forces, warned that they would “cut the hand of anyone” who attempted to come near influential Shia cleric Ali Sistani in Najaf.
The protests, which began in Baghdad on 1 October and have spread through southern cities, are the most complex challenge facing the Shia-dominated ruling class that has controlled state institutions and patronage networks since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled longtime Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein.
Protesters are mostly unemployed youths who are demanding the departure of Iraq’s entire political elite.
Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly unarmed protesters, killing more than 350. Some demonstrators have lobbed petrol bombs, bricks and fired slingshots at police.
The violence has killed more than 355 people, according to police and medics.
Anger against Iran has been a repeated feature of the protests, with protesters blaming Iran and Iran-backed politicians of looting and controlling the country.
One protester told MEE last week that the outbreak of protests in Iran – which have also seen dozens killed by security forces – were “God’s punishment” on the government in Iran for their actions.
“The Iraqi people are angry and now God is punishing them [the Iranian government] with this public revolt against them,” said the protester, named Awathal.
“We have no problem with the Iranian people. We have a problem with the authorities. We have a problem with [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander] Qassem Soleimani. We have a problem with [Iran Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei.”