Iraqis protest to defy ‘slaughter’ in Baghdad as drone hits cleric’s home

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Thousands attended angry protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq last Saturday, grieving but defiant after 20 of them were killed in an attack the previous day that demonstrators described as “slaughter”.

The protest movement faced another worrying turn last Saturday after an armed drone targetted 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 20 protesters were killed or sustained wounds that later proved fatal, while dozens more were injured, when unidentified gunmen attacked a large building where protesters had camped out for weeks, medics said.

Four police officers also died, the medics said, with witnesses saying gunshots were fired in the dark from atop the building towards Al-Sinek, where security forces are stationed.

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr lift portraits of him and his father Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, at a rally near his residence in the city of Najaf. PHOTO: AFP

The toll rose throughout the day on Saturday as wounded demonstrators and police officers died in hospital.

The violence pushed the protest toll past 450 dead and to nearly 20,000 wounded, according to an AFP 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 told AFP.

“They wouldn’t let us evacuate the wounded. It was slaughter.”

As night fell last 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 told AFP.

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 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 last Friday’s attack “to protect protesters,” a Saraya source told AFP.

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 told AFP.

“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 last 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 told AFP.