BAGHDAD: An armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr on Saturday, hours after his supporters deployed in Baghdad in response to an attack that left 17 protesters dead.
The developments marked a worrying turn for the anti-government protests rocking Iraq since October, the country’s largest and deadliest grassroots movement in decades.
The mostly young protesters in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square had long feared a spiral into chaos, and on Friday it appeared their apprehensions were well-placed.
After nightfall, armed men on pick-up trucks attacked a large building where protesters had been camped out for weeks near the capital’s Al-Sinek bridge.
Security forces deployed on the bridge itself did not intervene, witnesses said, as the attackers ousted protesters from the building in a volley of gunfire.
At least 17 people were killed and dozens more wounded, medics told AFP, with ambulances shuttling teenagers suffering gunshot and stab wounds to nearby field clinics.
Panicked demonstrators rushed out into the street, sending out calls through social media for people to come to their main gathering place in Tahrir Square.
By Saturday morning, hundreds had arrived.
“I came after the incident and there were tons of people in Tahrir and by Al-Sinek,” one demonstrator told AFP.
– Drone hits Sadr home –
Many of the new arrivals were suspected to be members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), the paramilitary group headed by Sadr.
They are nicknamed “blue helmets” for the headgear they typically wear, and witnesses said they were visible in large numbers in Tahrir before dawn on Saturday.
A source within Saraya told AFP one of its own members had died in the overnight clash, and that more unarmed members had been sent to Tahrir “to protect protesters.”
Sadr has backed the protests, but demonstrators have been wary of his support as they feared it could pave the way for confrontations with pro-government forces.
Early Saturday, a drone dropped a bomb on his home in the shrine city of Najaf, damaging the exterior wall, sources within his party told AFP.
Sadr, a notoriously versatile figure, is currently in Iran.
In Baghdad, trucks of armed men briefly blocked a main road near Tahrir early on Saturday, firing their weapons and shouting, witnesses said.
Army units then deployed on the street.
Further south in Nasiriyah, the usual rallies swelled with crowds upset over the previous night’s developments, an AFP correspondent said.
“We are coming in solidarity with Baghdad,” one said.
Security forces also deployed in Nasiriyah, where protests have continued despite an attempted crackdown last week that left more than two dozen dead.
In Diwaniyah, another protest hotspot, thousands turned out early on Saturday but security forces, too, spread across the streets in larger numbers.
And preparations were under way in Najaf, where most of the country’s Shiite Muslims are buried, for the funerals of those killed late Friday.
– ‘Outraged, deeply saddened’ –
The deaths pushed the toll since early October to more than 440 dead and nearly 20,000 wounded, according to an AFP toll compiled from medics, police and a national commission.
Diplomats in Baghdad were shocked at the violence, with the European Union’s ambassador Martin Huth saying he was “outraged and deeply saddened at last night’s killings.”
British ambassador Stephen Hickey called on the government to “protect protesters and take urgent steps to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable.”
Iraqi authorities have pledged to pursue any security force members responsible for violence against protesters but there has been little accountability so far.
The country has a complex security apparatus including the military, various police forces and the Hashed al-Shaabi, a mostly Shiite network including factions backed by Iran.
The Hashed initially backed Iraq’s government against the protests, but switched sides after an intervention by the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The Hashed began publicly backing the rallies and on Thursday, thousands of its supporters streamed into Tahrir.
That sparked concern among protesters, worried that the show of force could destabilise their movement.
The youth-dominated rallies have already brought down the prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, and the heads of Iraq’s main political blocs have been huddled this week to agree on a new premier.
Sistani insisted on Friday he was not part of those talks but urged they take place with no “foreign interference,” an apparent warning to Iran, Iraq’s influential neighbour.
The US on Friday slammed the presence of Tehran’s pointman in Iraq, Major General Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad as “a huge violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”
It also slapped sanctions on three Iraqi Hashed leaders it accused of involvement in the deadly crackdown.