At least 18 protesters were killed in the Iraqi city of Karbala on Tuesday morning when a unit of masked Iraqi security forces opened fire on them with live ammunition.
Over 800 others were reportedly wounded in the attack.
Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News noted some local media reports that put the death toll at 20 or even higher.
According to Hurriyet, a force of several hundred security troops were attempting to disperse an “unlicensed sit-in” in Karbala and employed deadly force when the protesters refused to obey their orders.
“They opened fire randomly while police vehicles rammed into protesters, leaving at least ten people dead,” said one eyewitness. Another called the attack “totally unjustified” and accused the troops of interfering with efforts to aid the injured.
“We saw masked men dressed all in black and they fired live bullets toward the square. People fell dead and wounded right next to me. We tried to escape but when we fled into the alleys we ran into moving checkpoints set up by these forces. They arrested people and searched their phones for video of what had happened,” a demonstrator said.
Some eyewitnesses said they could not tell if the masked attackers were police, military special forces, or militia fighters linked to Iran. Uniformed Iraqi soldiers positioned around the protest area allegedly withdrew shortly before the masked men attacked. Some accounts said the assault began with a drive-by shooting from unknown assailants.
The Middle Euphrates Operations Command of the Iraqi army, on the other hand, insisted “there is no single martyr in Karbala” – meaning there were no fatalities from the security action – and the situation in the city is “very good.”
The governor of Karbala, Naseef al-Khitaby, also claimed there were no fatalities and denounced viral videos of slain and injured demonstrators as “fabrications.” The governor said he has banned the use of live ammunition by security forces.
“There are fabricated and false news making the rounds on social media about events that have not happened and casualties that have not occurred,” al-Khitaby said.