By Alissa J. Rubin
Masked and black-clad security forces fired barrages of pepper spray, tear gas and sound bombs into crowds of anti-government protesters in a central Baghdad square for hours Saturday evening, timing their assault at one point to a shutdown of electricity that left the area enveloped in darkness.
The demonstrators — who gathered a day after dozens were killed in similar protests over joblessness, corruption and a lack of official accountability — trampled each other in the dark as they retreated from Tahrir Square.
The extent of fatalities Saturday was not immediately clear, but the overall death toll from the past two days stood at about 60, the Iraqi High Commission on Human Rights said.
The anti-government demonstrations began in early October, pausing two weeks ago after security forces had killed nearly 150 protesters nationwide and then resuming again Friday.
Protesters’ anger has been increasingly directed at political parties with ties to Iran and their militias. The militias are now part of Iraqi security forces, but their origins, and sometimes their training, involve Iran.
The offices of some of those political parties and militias were vandalized or burned in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq, prompting the government Saturday to impose tough new restrictions on movements there.
In Tahrir Square, many protesters described security forces firing at them as Iranian or from Iranian political parties. “Iran get out, get out,” demonstrators chanted.
Maj. Gen. Takseen al-Khafaji, a spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, said the black-clad masked squads were Iraqis from a squad known as the Special Division, which is responsible for protecting the Green Zone.
But overall the government was silent Saturday in response to protesters, and Parliament was unable to muster a quorum, so it delayed even discussing the situation.
Iraq has lurched from one crisis to another over the last 16 years since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Almost immediately, the Shiite-majority country faced a disenfranchised Sunni minority, and some of those Sunnis formed the al-Qaida insurgency in Iraq. At the time, both the U.S. and Iran maintained a presence in Iraq and were attempting to influence the country’s politics.
But in 2014, when the Islamic State invaded the country, it was Iran that came first to aid Iraq. It helped organize, train and arm a volunteer militia to help wrest back the vast swathes of territory taken by the terrorist group and then inserted itself in Iraq’s troubled political system.
Although the Islamic State is a far less potent force today and the militias are no longer needed, Iran pushed not only to persuade Iraq to keep them but to make them into political parties that would encourage Baghdad to lean toward Tehran instead of toward the West.
The United Nations special representative to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said the current situation in the country was urgent.
“Armed entities sabotaging the peaceful demonstrations, eroding the government’s credibility and ability to act, cannot be tolerated,” she said in a statement.
Hennis-Plasschaert also admonished the political parties to do more than talk about controlling corruption.
“The people’s continued calls for accountability should be addressed at the right level — without delay,” she said.
The sense of urgency only grew Saturday as protesters appeared ready to endure a long stay in central Baghdad, setting up tents and equipping themselves with masks and swimming goggles to protect against tear gas.
“People are bringing us more water and food and sustenance, and that is giving us the incentive to stay,” said Anwar Rishan, a protester who works with a local humanitarian organization. He said the security forces appeared more restrained Saturday than a day earlier, though the use of tear gas was more evident.
Death tolls in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south from Friday’s violence continued to rise Saturday as some of the wounded died. The deaths were partly a result of factional fights between several of the Shiite militias. In Amara province, people who shot the leader of one militia then followed him to the hospital to finish the job, according to security officials.
“There were vicious confrontations between two militias,” said Adnan Al-Ghalibi, the deputy head of the province’s security committee. “Those confrontations paralyzed movement in the province, and so we announced a complete curfew to control the situation.”
In Diwaniya Province, some demonstrators attacked and burned the three-story headquarters of the Badr Forces, which is one of the Shiite militias trained by Iran.
But other demonstrators had taken refuge in the building, and by the time they realized it was burning, they were trapped and could not get out. At least 12 civilians were killed in the fire, said Zuhair Al Shalan, the Diwaniya governor.