Baghdad, Iraq – At least 25 people were killed after security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas canisters to disperse anti-government protesters in the southern city of Nasiriya, medical sources and witnesses said.
Authorities in the capital, Baghdad, dispatched troops to “restore order” in southern Iraq, which has seen massive protests for weeks, the military said in a statement on Thursday.
The Iraqi goverment fired the new military commander after the outbreak of deadly violence.
A source in the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office told Al Jazeera that Adel Abdul Mahdi ordered the dismissal of Lieutenant-General Jamil al-Shammari less than a day after he was named military commander to manage Dhi Qar province following the violent escalation in Nasiriyah.
Security sources said at least 233 people were wounded in the crackdown on protests in Nasiriya on Thursday, a day after the Iranian consulate was set on fire in Shia holy city of Najaf.
‘Force won’t scare us’
Hussein, a 32-year-old lawyer from Nasiriya who was at the protest site, blamed security forces for what he called a “bloodbath”.
“We had blocked off the roads and bridges over the past four days and security forces moved in on us to try to open up the bridges. They opened fire leading to a bloodbath,” he told Al Jazeera.
“What’s happening in Nasiriya is unbelievable. Nothing justifies this use of violence against us. We, the people, are extremely angry. Our blood is boiling. Our brothers were killed unjustifiably.
“But this use of force won’t scare us. More of us have gone out to the streets to either demand justice for those who have been killed or keep the bridges under our control.”
Khalifa, a 30-year-old protester, said most demonstrators in Nasiriya lost a brother or a friend during the bloody events on Thursday.
“The pain is deep and that only makes us more adamant to protest,” he said. “We will stay in the streets until our demands our met – no matter what level of force is used against us.”
The governor of Dhi Qar earlier called on Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi to withdraw military commanders sent to Nasiriya, capital city of the province, accusing them of responsibility for the deadly violence.
Adel al-Dukhali called for an investigation into what he described as an “unacceptable” use of force against protesters.
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Iran demands action
The events in Nasiriya come a day after anti-government protesters stormed and set fire to the Iranian consulate in the southern holy city of Najaf, in the strongest expression of anti-Iranian sentiment by Iraqi protesters, who have taken to the streets in Baghdad and Iraq’s mainly Shia south since early October.
More than 360 people have been killed and about 15,000 wounded so far.
Iraqi authorities responded by condemning the attack and imposing a curfew in Najaf, while Iran demanded that Iraq take decisive action against “aggressors” behind the arson attack.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, quoted by state news agency IRNA, condemned the attack and “demanded decisive, effective and responsible action … against destructive agents and aggressors”.
“Iran has officially communicated its disgust to the Iraq ambassador in Tehran,” Mousavi said.
The protesters were holding a demonstration in central Najaf when a group started to close off the main roads and set the tyres of police cars on fire.
A witness told Al Jazeera “security forces responded using tear gas and sound bombs to disperse the protesters who ran towards the Iranian embassy”.
“The protesters were angered by the security forces trying to disperse the demonstration. They started burning tyres near the consulate and eventually set the consulate ablaze, minutes after the consulate staff evacuated the building,” said the source.
As the consulate is near the home of the leading Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, locals moved to surround his home in an attempt to protect it, witnesses said.
Responding to the incidents, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces – Hashd al-Shaabi – an umbrella group of Iraq’s mostly Shia militias, warned the group would take action against any protesters who “target al-Sistani”.
“We will cut their hands off,” he warned in a statement.
Message to Iran
Eyewitnesses said there was more violence in Najaf on Thursday with three people killed and 18 wounded in clashes between security forces and demonstrators.
Wednesday’s Najaf attack was the second of its kind this month after protesters targeted the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on November 4.
Three people were shot dead after security forces opened fire on demonstrators who tried to climb the consulate walls, demanding Iran stop interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs.
Commenting on the developments, Iraqi analyst Jasim Moussawi said protesters setting the consulate ablaze was an attempt to tarnish historical relations between Tehran and Baghdad.
“Those who are responsible for setting fire to the Iranian consulate in Najaf have the same message as those who did it in Karbala. Their message is a warning against the intervention of Iran in Iraq’s internal affairs,” said Moussawi.
The violence will push the government to allow security forces to use more force to quell protests, he said.