Iraqi officials said Saturday the casualty toll had risen to 25 dead and 130 wounded after a bloody night of attacks targeting anti-government demonstrators in the capital. The gunmen who opened fire on demonstrators from a number of vehicles are suspected to be linked to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, according to a report in the Saudi news network Al-Arabiya cited by the Hebrew-language press.
The report came hours after the United States announced sanctions on three Iranian-linked Iraqi militia leaders for allegedly assisting the crackdown on demonstrations that have swept the country in recent months.
The United States imposed sanctions on three Iraqis — Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, and Hussein Falil Aziz al-Lami — who are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashed al-Shaabi, a Shiite militia movement close to Iran. Washington also placed sanctions on an Iraqi politician, Khamis Farhan al-Khanjar al-Issawi, on bribery charges.
Some 430 people have died across Iraq as authorities cracked down on protests, which eventually led to the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, a close ally of Iran.
Friday’s attack came as anti-government demonstrators occupied parts of Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahar bridges in a standoff with security forces. All the bridges lead to or near the heavily-fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government.
The assault was among the deadliest since October 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. Security forces regularly use live rounds and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations, leading to heavy casualties
The gunfire continued until the early hours of Saturday. The assailants first unleashed the deadly assault on Baghdad’s Khilani Square and Sinak Bridge, driving through the areas that are the epicenter of the popular uprising. Protesters said the electricity in the square was cut, creating chaos as they ran from the bullets and took cover in nearby mosques and streets.
Three among the dead were policemen and the rest were protesters, Iraqi officials said.
The attack included the burning of a car park that demonstrators had converted into a base for their sit-in, while surrounding buildings in Khilani square were pockmarked with bullet holes. On Saturday, protesters raised a bloodied white flag as they sought to return to the scene.
Anti-government activists have sought to blame supporters of Iran-backed Iraqi militias, which have staged similar attacks against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country’s southern cities.
A string of mysterious knife attacks against anti-government protesters also occurred on Thursday in the square, after supporters of the Iran-backed militias attempted their own rival demonstration before withdrawing.
Those attacks by unknown perpetrators occurred as demonstrators supporting political parties and Iran-backed militias withdrew from the Square. The incidents Thursday fueled paranoia among protesters, who immediately implemented self-security measures to uncover saboteurs within the square.
Also on Saturday, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of parliament’s Sairoon bloc, said a drone had targeted his home in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday, according to statements from the political party.
On Friday, Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority called for the formation of a new government within the allotted deadline, and without foreign interference, as the clock ticks down on lawmakers to select a new premier following the resignation of Mahdi last week.
Thousands of anti-government protesters from across southern Iraq had joined demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement in the capital, hours after the sermon, according to security officials.
“We hope the head of the new government and its members are chosen within the constitutional deadline and according to the aspirations of the people and away from outside influence,” the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in his weekly Friday sermon in the holy city of Najaf. The sermon is always delivered by a representative.
He added that the Shiite religious establishment would not take part in the government formation process.
Parliament had 15 days since his stepping down was formally recognized by lawmakers last Sunday to name a new nominee, per the constitution.
Since the US invasion of 2003, government formation in Iraq has been based on brokering consensus among political factions and their foreign allies, primarily the US and Iran. President Barham Salih launched talks immediately after Mahdi’s resignation by making rounds with different political blocs. Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional security apparatus, also came to Baghdad to meet with key officials.
Lawmakers made headway in passing a key reform bill to change the membership of Iraq’s controversial Independent High Electoral Commission, the body tasked with overseeing polls, in a session Thursday night. Anti-government protesters consider IHEC a corrupt and partisan institution and its commissioners working in favor of political parties. The new law seeks to select commissioners primarily from the judiciary.
Protesters are also calling for early elections and reforms to have a greater influence in electing their representatives.
Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful religious figure whose opinion holds sway over Iraqis, also said peaceful protesters should increase their ranks and push out saboteurs, while respecting the role of the “indispensable” security forces.
Following the sermon, thousands of protesters traveled to Baghdad from across southern Iraqi provinces and marched on Tahrir Square, including from Dhi Qar, Diwanieh, Karbala, Najaf, Babylon and Missan, security officials said, chanting the slogan “Sistani, we are his soldiers.”
Security officials requested anonymity in line with regulations.