The death toll from four days of widespread protests in Iraq climbed to 60 as of Friday afternoon, with a growing number of allegations that security forces are unnecessarily targeting demonstrators with lethal ammunition.
One protester claimed many of the killings are being perpetrated by Iranians brought in to reinforce government troops.
“There is no work, you come to protest, they fire at you. Live gunfire. They are all Iranian speaking in Farsi. You want to speak to them they answer in Farsi. The Iraqis would not fire at you,” the demonstrator in question told Reuters in an interview published on Thursday.
The precise religious, ethnic, and factional composition of the protest movement is a bit murky, as there have been reports of Shiite militia members taking to the streets to complain about the lack of compensation from the Baghdad government, but a sizable number of the protesters have reportedly been shouting anti-Iran slogans and accusing the Iranians of meddling in Iraqi politics, most recently by orchestrating the dismissal of a popular Iraqi military commander named Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi.
Reuters reporters in Baghdad saw evidence of police snipers firing on protesters with lethal rounds, witnessing at least two men hit in the head and neck by sniper fire. AFP reporters also said they witnessed security forces firing directly at protesters in Baghdad, without firing any warning shots.
Security officials held protesters responsible for several incidents of violence and arson, blaming some explosions heard in Baghdad on demonstrators with access to mortars.
The overall death toll climbed steadily as reports came in on Friday. According to Reuters, the latest semi-official estimate is 60 dead for the week, most of them killed in the past 24 hours.
Iran’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called the deaths “sorrowful” and blamed the government for failing to address complaints of corruption and inefficiency. Another notable Shiite religious leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, went further and ordered lawmakers from his party to withdraw from the Iraqi parliament until emergency reforms are implemented.
Embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi gave a speech on Thursday night in which he promised to work on reforms, but said there was no “magic solution” and implied his government lacks the power to combat entrenched corrupt interests.
“We do not live in ivory towers. We walk among you in the streets of Baghdad,” Abdul-Madhi said of his administration.
Iran announced border closings as a result of the unrest, interfering with an annual Shiite religious pilgrimage now underway. Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar have issued travel warnings for Iraq.
The United Nations on Friday urged the Iraqi government to “allow people to freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
“We are worried by reports that security forces have used live ammunition and rubber bullets in some areas, and have also fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters,” said U.N. spokeswoman Marta Hurtado.
“All incidents in which the actions of security forces have resulted in death and injury should be promptly, independently and transparently investigated,” Hurtado added.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also expressed concerns on Friday, stating that “the se of force by security forces must be proportionate to the situation.”
“In particular, firearms and live ammunition must only be used as a last resort, and to protect against an imminent threat to life,” the ICRC said.
Kurdish news service Rudaw observed on Friday that over half of the week’s fatalities occurred in the southern Dhi Qar province, which has an extremely long history of political unrest and rebellions against perceived injustice. In addition to widespread complaints about corruption and high unemployment, residents of Dhi Qar are especially angry about lax government efforts to address poor infrastructure.