Iraqi security forces shot dead 45 protesters after demonstrators stormed and torched an Iranian consulate, in what could mark a turning point in the uprising against the Tehran-backed authorities.
At least 29 people died in Nassiriya when troops opened fire on demonstrators blocking a bridge before dawn on Thursday and outside a police station. Police and medical sources said dozens were wounded.
Four people were killed in Baghdad, where security forces opened fire with live ammunition and rubber bullets against protesters near a bridge over the Tigris River, the sources said. Twelve died in clashes in Najaf.
In Nassiriya thousands of mourners took to the streets, defying a curfew to bury their dead after the mass shooting.
Video of protesters cheering as flames billowed from the consulate were a stunning image after years in which Tehran’s influence among Shi’ite Muslims in Arab states has been a defining factor in Middle East politics.
The bloodshed was one of the most violent days since the uprising began in October, with anti-corruption demonstrations swelling into a revolt against authorities seen by young demonstrators as stooges of Tehran.
Iran closed the Mehran border crossing to Iraq on Thursday for security reasons, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported, citing a local border official.
“With attention to the recent events and unrest in Iraq the Mehran border has been closed from tonight,” Mojtaba Soleimani, border post manager said, according to Mehr.
In Najaf, a city of ancient pilgrimage shrines serving as seat of Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite clergy, the Iranian consulate was reduced to a charred ruin after it was stormed overnight.
The protesters, overwhelmingly Shi’ite, accused Iraqi authorities of turning against their own people to defend Iran.
“Riot police in Najaf and security forces started shooting at us as if we were burning Iraq as a whole,” a protester who witnessed the consulate burning told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
Another protester, Ali, described the attack on the consulate as “a brave act and reaction from the Iraqi people. We don’t want the Iranians”.
He predicted more violence: “There will be revenge from Iran, I’m sure. They’re still here and security forces are going to keep shooting at us.”
Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the attack and demanded “the Iraqi government’s firm response to the aggressors”.
So far, authorities have been unyielding in response to the unrest, shooting dead hundreds of demonstrators with live ammunition and teargas, while floating proposals for political reform protesters dismiss as trivial and cosmetic.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has so far rejected calls to resign, after meetings with senior politicians attended by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, the elite unit that directs its militia allies abroad.
Abdul Mahdi summoned a senior military commander in Dhi Qar province, where Nassiriya is, to Baghdad to explain why the situation had deteriorated, a military statement said.
“CUT THE HANDS”
In a statement indicating more violence was expected, the military commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of paramilitary groups whose most powerful factions are close to Iran, suggested unrest in Najaf was a threat to Shi’ite clergy based in the city.
The paramilitary fighters would use full force against anyone who threatened Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said in a statement posted on the PMF website.
“We will cut the hand of anyone trying to get near al-Sistani,” he said.
Influential populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a fresh call for government to resign, warning those who torched the embassy they risked provoking a violent backlash from authorities.
“Do not give them cover to end your revolution and stay clear of religious sites,” he said on Twitter. If the government does not resign, “this is the beginning of the end of Iraq,” he said.
Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, said government and its paramilitary allies could use the consulate incident to justify crushing demonstrations.
“It sends a message to Iran, but it also works to the advantage of people like Muhandis,” he said. Paramilitaries could use the consulate incident as “a pretext to clamp down, framing what happened as a threat against Sistani.”
Sistani appeared to back protesters since unrest started, calling on politicians to meet popular demands for reform.
Authorities set up “crisis cells” in several provinces to restore order, a military statement said. They would be led by provincial governors and include military leaders who would take charge of local security forces.