Iraq’s anti-regime protesters gathered in the capital and south yesterday, grieving but defiant after 23 were killed in an attack demonstrators described as “slaughter”.
The protest movement faced another worrying turn yesterday after an armed drone targeted 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 23 people were killed and dozens wounded when unidentified gunmen attacked a large building where protesters had camped out for weeks, medics said.
“Government forces were one kilometre away and didn’t interfere,” said a young volunteer medic who had treated wounded people overnight.
The violence pushed the protest toll past 440 dead and nearly 20,000 wounded, according to an AFP tally compiled from medics, police and a national rights commission.
Under stormy skies yesterday, young men in central Baghdad prayed over an Iraqi flag to mourn those who died the previous night.
They sobbed heavily, their shoulders shaking.
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.”
After the attack, panicked demonstrators sent out calls through social media for people to join the rallies in Tahrir, hoping to gain strength in numbers.
“I came after the incident and there were tons of people in Tahrir and by Al-Sinek,” one demonstrator told AFP.
Many of the new arrivals appeared to be members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), which is headed by Sadr.
The notoriously versatile cleric was one of the main sponsors of the current government but then backed the protests.
Diplomats in Baghdad said they were “outraged and deeply saddened at last night’s killings” and urged the government hold the perpetrators accountable.