Iraqi forces kill 45 protesters after Iranian consulate burns down


BAGHDAD / NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces shot dead at least 45 protesters on Thursday after protesters stormed and torched an Iranian consulate overnight, which could mark a turning point in the uprising against authorities supported by Tehran.

At least 29 people died in the southern town of Nasiriya when troops opened fire on protesters who blocked a bridge before dawn on Thursday and then gathered outside a police station. Dozens more were injured, according to police and medical sources.

Four people were killed in Baghdad, where security forces opened fire with live ammunition and rubber bullets at protesters near a bridge over the Tigris, the sources said, and twelve died in clashes in Najaf.

In Nassiriya, thousands of mourners took to the streets, defying the curfew to bury their dead after the mass shooting.

The video of protesters applauding in the night as flames escaped from the consulate was a stunning image after years in which Tehran’s influence among Shia Muslims in Arab states has been a determining factor in politics in the Middle -East.

The bloodshed that followed was one of the most violent days since the uprising began in early October, with anti-corruption protests turning into a revolt against authorities seen by young protesters as cronies. from Tehran.

Iran closed the Mehran border post to Iraq on Thursday evening for security reasons, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported, citing a local border official.

“With the attention paid to recent events and unrest in the country of Iraq, the Mehran border has been closed as of this evening,” said Mojtaba Soleimani, the director of the border post, according to Mehr.

He said it was not clear when the border would reopen.

In Najaf, a city of ancient pilgrimage shrines that serves as the seat of Iraq’s powerful Shia clergy, the Iranian consulate has been reduced to a charred ruin after being stormed overnight.

The mostly Shiite protesters accused the Iraqi authorities of turning on their own people to defend Iran.

“All the 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 fire told Reuters, asking to not to be identified.

Another protester, Ali, described the attack on the consulate as “a courageous act and a reaction from the Iraqi people. We don’t want Iranians ”.

But he predicted more violence: “There will be revenge from Iran, I’m sure. They are still there and the security forces will continue to shoot at us.

Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the attack and demanded “a firm response from the Iraqi government to the aggressors.”

Authorities have so far been adamant in responding to the unrest, shooting hundreds of protesters with live ammunition and tear gas, while launching political reform proposals that protesters dismiss as trivial and cosmetic.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has so far rejected calls for resignation, after meetings with senior politicians attended by the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the elite unit that heads his militia allies abroad.

Abdul Mahdi summoned a senior military commander from Dhi Qar province, where Nassiriya is located, to Baghdad on Thursday to explain why the situation had deteriorated, according to a military statement.

“CUT HANDS”

In a statement that said more violence was coming, the military commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP), a coordination group of paramilitary groups whose most powerful factions are close to Iran, suggested that the unrest of the day in Najaf were a threat to Shi ‘ite clergy based in the city.

The paramilitary fighters would use all force against anyone who threatened Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said in a statement posted on the PMF website.

“We will cut off the hand of anyone who tries to approach al-Sistani,” he said.

The influential populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has issued yet another call for the resignation of the government, while warning those who burned down the embassy that they risked provoking a violent backlash from the authorities.

“Do not cover them up to end your revolution and stay away from religious sites,” he said in a statement on Twitter. If the government does not resign, “this is the beginning of the end of Iraq,” he said.

Fanar Haddad, a senior researcher at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, said the government and its paramilitary allies could use the consulate incident to justify crushing the protests.

“It sends a message to Iran, but it also benefits people like Muhandis,” he said. The paramilitaries could use the consulate incident as “a pretext for repression, calling what happened a threat against Sistani”.

Sistani himself has appeared to support the protesters since the unrest began, calling on politicians to respond to popular demands for reform.

The authorities have set up “crisis cells” in several provinces to try to restore order, a military statement said Thursday. They would be headed by provincial governors but would include military leaders who would take charge of the local security forces.

Reporting by John Davison, Alaa Marjani in Najaf, Ali Hafthi in Hilla, Baghdad newsroom; Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Peter Graff, Giles Elgood and Daniel Wallis


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