BAGHDAD (AP) – Security forces in Iraq shot dead 20 protesters in a 24-hour period amid spiraling violence in the capital and the countryâ€™s south, as Iran condemned the burning of its consulate.
Security forces Thursday fired live ammunition, killing four protesters and wounding 22 on the strategic Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad, security and medical officials said.
Violence across southern Iraq continued throughout the night, with security forces killing 16 protesters and wounding 90 since Wednesday evening. Protesters closed roads and a large number of police and military forces were deployed across key oil-rich provinces.
In Baghdad, protesters attempted to cross the Ahrar Bridge leading nearby to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraqâ€™s government. Protesters are occupying parts of three bridges – Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar – all leading to the fortified area. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Protesters had set fire to the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf late Wednesday, in one of the worst attacks targeting Iranian interests in the country since the anti-government protests erupted two months ago. The Iranian staff were not harmed and escaped out the back door.
Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south. The largely leaderless movement accuses the government of being hopelessly corrupt, and has also decried Iranâ€™s growing influence in Iraqi state affairs.
At least 350 people have been killed by security forces, which routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities.
Separately, the U.S. Embassy denounced a recent decision by Iraqâ€™s media regulator to suspend nine television channels, calling for the Communications and Media Commission to reverse its decision. Thursdayâ€™s statement from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also condemned attacks and harassment against journalists.
Local channel Dijla TV had its license suspended on Tuesday for its coverage of the protests, and its office was closed and its equipment confiscated, according an official from one of the channels under threat. Other channels have been asked by the regulatory commission to sign a pledge â€œagreeing to adhere to its rules,â€ said the official, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
The Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for Tuesdayâ€™s coordinated bombings in three Baghdad neighborhoods, which killed five people. That was the first apparent coordinated attack since anti-government protests began. The bombings took place far from Baghdadâ€™s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of weeks of anti-government protests that have posed the biggest security challenge to Iraq since the defeat of IS.
Tehran called for a â€œresponsible, strong and effectiveâ€ response leadership to the incident from Iraqâ€™s government, said Abbas Mousavi, a foreign ministry spokesman, in statements to Iranâ€™s official IRNA news agency.
Iraqâ€™s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, saying it was perpetrated by â€œpeople outside of the genuine protesters,â€ in a statement, adding that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations between the countries.
One demonstrator was killed and 35 wounded when police fired live ammunition to prevent them from entering the Iranian consulate building. Once inside, the demonstrators removed the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations.
A curfew was imposed in Najaf after the consulate was burned. Security forces were heavily deployed around main government buildings and religious institutions on Thursday morning. The province is the headquarters of the countryâ€™s Shiite religious authority.
The consulate attack comes after days of sit-ins and road closures with protesters cutting access to main thoroughfares and bridges with burning tires. Protesters have also lately targeted the stateâ€™s economic interests in the south by blocking key ports and roads to oil fields.
In the oil-rich province of Nassiriya, 16 protesters were killed overnight and 90 wounded by security forces who fired live ammunition to disperse them from a key bridge, security and medical officials said Thursday. Demonstrators had been blocking Nasr Bridge leading to the city center for several days. Security forces moved in late Wednesday to open the main thoroughfare. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In Basra, security forces were deployed in the cityâ€™s main roads to prevent protesters from staging sit-ins, with instructions to arrest demonstrators if they tried to block roads.
Basraâ€™s streets were open as of Thursday morning, but roads leading to the two main Gulf commodities ports in Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair remained closed. Schools and official public institutions were also closed.
Protesters had brought traffic in the oil-rich province to a halt for days by burning tires and barricading roads.