Tensions flare as gunmen kill 17 protesters in Baghdad

Updated December 08, 2019

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Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather near his home, after it was attacked, in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq December 7, 2019. — Reuters
Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather near his home, after it was attacked, in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq December 7, 2019. — Reuters

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s anti-regime protesters gathered in the capital and south on Saturday, grieving but defiant after 17 were killed in an attack demonstrators described as "slaughter".

The protest movement faced another worrying turn on Saturday after an armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr, an attack his office said could lead to "civil war". The dramatic developments have threatened to derail the anti-government rallies rocking Iraq since October, the largest and deadliest grassroots movement in decades.

Late Friday, at least 17 people were killed and dozens wounded when unidentified gunmen attacked a large building where protesters had camped out for weeks, medics said.

“Government forces were one kilometre away and didn’t interfere,” said a young volunteer medic who treated people overnight. Another medic who had treated wounded protesters near the building said she came back to her field clinic on Saturday morning to find all the donated medical equipment had been stolen.

The violence pushed the protest toll past 440 dead and to nearly 20,000 wounded, according to a tally compiled from medics, police and a national rights commission.

Under stormy skies, young men in central Baghdad prayed over an Iraqi flag to mourn those who died the previous night, sobbing heavily.

Small clusters of protesters stood near the charred parking complex that was attacked, as larger crowds flocked to nearby Tahrir Square.

“They fired intensely, mercilessly on the protesters,” one witness said. “They wouldn’t let us evacuate the wounded. It was slaughter.”

As night fell on Saturday, protesters feared the same scene would play out again. “The same type of men who came in last night are back and police are not stopping them,” one worried demonstrator said.

Protesters had suspected their movement’s legitimacy would be smeared or pushed towards chaos and were particularly wary of any partisan support.

After Friday’s attack, large crowds headed to Tahrir in solidarity — many of them apparently members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), headed by Sadr.

The notoriously politically versatile cleric was one of the main sponsors of the current government but then backed the protests.

He sent his followers into the streets after Friday’s attack “to protect protesters,” a Saraya said.

But just a few hours later, Sadr’s home in the shrine city of Najaf was hit by an apparent mortar round dropped by a drone, sources from his party said.

“Only the external wall was damaged,” one of them said, adding that Sadr was currently in Iran.

Dozens of his supporters flocked to his home on Saturday to show support, waving Iraqi flags and the cleric’s picture while chanting, “We are all your soldiers!” “This is a clear attack that could kindle a war — maybe a civil war — in Iraq. Self-restraint is essential,” Sadr’s spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said.

Lawmakers from Sadr’s Saeroon, which make up the largest bloc in parliament, called for an emergency session over Friday’s violence.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2019