Violence has escalated in protest-hit Iraq a day after the Iranian Consulate in the southern city of Najaf, the headquarters of the country's Shiite religious authority, was attacked and torched by protesters who are accusing the government of being a puppet of the Tehran administration. A curfew was imposed in Najaf after the consulate was burned. Security forces were heavily deployed around the main government buildings and religious institutions Thursday morning. At least 15 people were killed and 100 people wounded Thursday after security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters in the southern city of Nassiriya.
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 state's economic interests in the south by blocking key ports and roads to oil fields. Protesters had brought traffic in the oil-rich province to a halt for days by burning tires and barricading roads in Basra and Nassiriya.
The protests, which began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and have spread through southern cities, are the most complex challenge facing the Shiite-dominated ruling class that has controlled state institutions and patronage networks since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled long-time Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein. The inability of Iraq's government and political class to deal with the unrest and answer protesters' demands has fueled public anger. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has promised electoral and anti-corruption reform but had barely begun delivering on his promises before security forces shot dead hundreds of mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Baghdad and southern cities. Since the protests began, at least 350 people have died as security forces have routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities.
Iraq, which is deeply divided in terms of sectarianism, has been ruled and dominated by Iran-backed Shiite governments. Sunni activities and demonstrations have largely been silenced through the claim of terrorism. However, this time, Shiites have joined those on the streets, increasing the government's frustration. Starting as a protest against high unemployment rates, energy shortages and corruption, the protests have since transformed into anti-Iranian demonstrations. Protesters hold Iran responsible for the deterioration of the country's economy and for interfering in its domestic issues. There are strong claims that Iranian-backed militias are involved in the clashes, in some cases allegedly firing directly at people. The military commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups whose most powerful factions are close to Tehran, said the groups would use full force against anyone trying to attack Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, who is based in Najaf. "We will cut the hand of anyone trying to get near (Grand Ayatollah Ali) al-Sistani," commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said in a statement on the PMF's website.
Although Iran denies the claims that it was involved in the killing of protesters and has closed the borders for security reasons, according to leaked Iranian documents obtained by the Intercept last week, the Tehran administration is a key player in Iraq's internal affairs. These documents revealed the full extent of Iran's influence in Iraq, "detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country's leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq's political, economic and religious life.