Iraq crackdown kills nearly 40 after Iran mission torched
Iraq’s protest-hit cities saw one of their bloodiest days yet on Thursday as a government crackdown killed nearly 40 demonstrators following the dramatic torching of an Iranian consulate.
The country’s capital and south have been rocked by the worst street unrest since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, with a protest movement venting fury at the government and its backers in neighbouring Iran.
Thursday’s violence brought the total death toll since early October to more than 390, with more than 15,000 wounded, according to an AFP tally.
The highest toll was in the flashpoint southern city of Nasiriyah, where 25 people were killed when security forces used “excessive force” to break up rallies, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
Another two protesters were killed in Baghdad and ten died in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, where demonstrators had torched the Iranian consulate late Wednesday.
Crowds outraged at Tehran’s political influence in Iraq had stormed and burned down the mission, yelling “Victory to Iraq!” and “Iran out!”
In response, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi early Thursday ordered military chiefs to deploy in several restive provinces to “impose security and restore order”, the army said.
But by the afternoon, following the bloody crackdown in the restive southern city of Nasiriyah, the premier had already sacked one commander, General Jamil Shummary.
The governor of Dhi Qar province, of which Nasiriyah is the capital, resigned later on that evening.
More than 200 people were also wounded as security forces cleared sit-ins with live fire, medics and security sources said.
– ‘Bloodbath’ –
Medics in Nasiriyah said they had to carry out more than 80 life-saving surgeries in hospitals crowded with casualties.
Dhi Qar announced three days of mourning as thousands attended funeral processions there in defiance of a curfew announced earlier in the day.
“We’re staying until the regime falls and our demand are met!” they chanted.
Demonstrators, dispersed by security forces, regrouped at Nasiriyah’s main police station, setting it on fire.
They then surrounded its main military headquarters as armed members of the area’s powerful tribes deployed along main highways to block military reinforcements trying to reach the city.
“The scenes from Nasiriyah this morning more closely resemble a war zone than city streets and bridges,” said Lynn Maalouf of rights group Amnesty International.
“This bloodbath must stop now.”
The new phase of unrest in southern Iraq was unleashed after protesters late Wednesday stormed the Iranian consulate in Najaf, apparently evacuated by its staff.
An AFP correspondent saw them setting tyres ablaze around the site, sending flames and thick smoke into the night sky.
Demonstrators have blamed powerful eastern neighbour Iran for propping up the Baghdad government which they are seeking to topple.
Tehran has demanded Iraq take decisive action against the protesters, with foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi condemning the consulate attack.
“Iran has officially communicated its disgust to the Iraq ambassador in Tehran,” he told Iran’s state news agency IRNA.