The Iranian consulate in Karbala, Iraq, was stormed by dozens of protesters on Sunday, who threw Molotov cocktails, climbed over the walls, took down the Iranian flag, and replaced it with the Iraqi flag.
Three of the protesters were reportedly killed by security forces during the incident, while five more were killed in Baghdad on Monday.
Karbala is a city of great significance to Shia Islam, the dominant religion of Iran. It has also been the scene of some of the most violent protests and security responses in the current Iraqi political crisis, in which Iran’s influence over Iraqi politics is a point of contention along with corruption, poverty, and the poor quality of public services.
The people who attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala were clearly angry at Tehran’s meddling in Iraq. Among other acts of vandalism, they spray-painted “Kabala is free, Iran out, out!” on the walls.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on the Karbala consulate, denouncing it as a “red line that should not be crossed.”
Protesters angry at Iran received some support on Friday from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, who urged security forces to take a lighter touch against demonstrators and took a veiled shot at Tehran.
“No person or group, no side with a particular view, no regional or international actor may seize the will of the Iraqi people and impose its will on them,” Sistani said.
The Iraqi protesters are beginning to adopt tactics from other popular uprisings, such as those in Hong Kong and Lebanon. The ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks from V for Vendetta are popping up in Iraq, and the demonstrators have begun tearing down police barricades while erecting roadblocks of their own.
AFP reported one such incident in Baghdad on Sunday:
One recent evening, police officers erected a row of concrete t-walls on the same street, sealing off access to Tahrir Square, ground zero for protests in the capital.
Demonstrators – one riding a motorised red rickshaw known as a tuk-tuk – sprung into action, chasing down the police.
The tuk-tuk came to a screeching halt in front of the truck, blocking its exit as young Iraqi men pressured officers to reopen the road to Tahrir.
Improbably, the officers relented, and the enormous truck reversed up the road to lift the barriers as the victorious tuk-tuk followed.
Protesters swiftly hung a sign nearby: “Re-opened by order of the people!”
“We decided to cut the roads as a message to the government that we will keep protesting until the corrupt people and thieves are kicked out and the regime falls,” one protester explained, adding that efforts have been made not to interfere with the operation of humanitarian agencies.
Students are joining the protests under the slogan “No country? No class!” and teachers have gone on strike. As public offices shut down under pressure from massive demonstrations, the protesters are hanging banners on their walls declaring, “Closed by order of the people!” Curfews imposed by the police and military are routinely ignored.
The Iraqi meltdown is a much grimmer affair than the block-party protests in Lebanon, but not without its moments of levity, as AFP observed:
Riot police have set up barricades along the bridge to keep protesters from entering the enclave, where government offices and embassies are located.
For those watching from above, their perch provided them a rare opportunity to monitor – and mock – security forces.
“Welcome to the morning shift!” they call out over loudspeakers to the fully-equipped police units below, before blaring Arabic love ballads typically heard on morning radio in Iraq.
Down below, protesters hand out fake Iraqi identity cards, where the nationality is listed as “Honorable Iraqi,” and profession as “peaceful protester.”
Iran-backed Shiite militia leaders are taking Tehran’s position on the protests. Qais al-Khazali, a powerful militia leader, accused the United States, Israel, and the Sunni Gulf states of attempting to “incite strife and chaos” in Iraq. He vowed to make America and Israel “pay a price” for allegedly stirring up the protests.
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Monday fired back at Iran, making reference to reports that infamous Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani has been coordinating the deadly security response to the demonstrations.
“We sympathize with the Iraqi people’s protest for freedom and dignity,” said Katz. “We condemn their repression and murder, led by Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”