At least 350 people have died since October 1, when protesters took to the streets to decry corruption.
Iraqi security forces shot dead at least 45 protesters on Thursday after demonstrators stormed and torched an Iranian consulate overnight, in what could mark a turning point in the uprising against the Tehran-backed authorities.
At least 29 people died in the southern city of Nasiriyah when troops opened fire on demonstrators who blocked a bridge before dawn on Thursday and later gathered outside a police station. Police and medical sources said dozens of others were wounded.
Four people were killed in Baghdad, where security forces opened fire with live ammunition and rubber bullets against protesters near a bridge over the Tigris river, the sources said, and 12 died in clashes in Najaf.
Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since October 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia south. The largely leaderless movement accuses the government of being hopelessly corrupt and has also decried Iran's growing influence in Iraqi state affairs.
At least 350 people have been killed by security forces, which routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities.
The escalating violence and heavy response against demonstrators by a largely Iran-backed government threatened to intensify tensions, especially if efforts to implement electoral and anti-corruption reforms fail to placate protesters.
Crisis committees were created to enhance coordination between Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi and governors in provinces affected by the protests “for the importance of controlling security and enforcing the law,” said a statement from the joint operations command.
In Nasiriyah, thousands of mourners took to the streets later on Thursday, defying a curfew to bury their dead after the mass shooting.
The oil-rich city also saw more than 200 wounded by security forces who fired to drive them away them from key bridges on Wednesday night, security and medical officials said on Thursday.
Demonstrators had been blocking Nasr and Zaitoun bridges leading to the city centre for several days. Security forces moved in late Wednesday to open the main thoroughfare.
By Thursday afternoon, special forces were transferred from neighbouring Najaf and Diwanieh provinces to Nasiriyah to contain the violence, security officials said.
Seat of the Shia clergy
In Najaf, the city of ancient pilgrimage shrines, the torching of the consulate late Wednesday set off a series of bloody events.
After the attack on the Iranian consulate, security forces were heavily deployed around main government buildings and religious institutions Thursday morning.
Najaf is the headquarters of the country’s Shia religious authority headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. He has been largely supportive of protester demands, siding with them by repeatedly calling on political parties to implement serious reforms.
In a statement that indicated more violence was to come, the military commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of paramilitary groups whose most powerful factions are close to Iran, suggested the overnight unrest in Najaf was a threat to Shia clergy based in the city.
The paramilitary fighters would use full force against anyone who threatened Sistani, commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis said in a statement posted on the PMF website.
"We will cut the hand of anyone trying to get near Sistani," he said.
Iran has called for a “responsible, strong and effective” response to the burning of its consulate, Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in statements to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
Security forces on Thursday fired live ammunition, killing four protesters and wounding 22 on the strategic Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad, security and medical officials said. Protesters attempted to cross Ahrar Bridge leading nearby to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government.
Protesters are occupying parts of three bridges — Jumhuriya, Sinak, and Ahrar — all leading to the fortified area.
The violence erupted after Abdul Mahdi dispatched military commanders to "restore order" in the protest-hit south, hours after demonstrators torched Tehran's consulate.
The Iraqi PM sacked a new commander after the killings, state TV reported on Thursday evening.
Sadr calls on government to resign
Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr called on Iraq’s government to resign “immediately to stop the bloodletting,” while imploring protesters to maintain the peace.
“If the government does not resign, this will be the beginning of the end of Iraq,” he warned.
Sadr warned those who torched the embassy that they risked provoking a violent backlash from the authorities.
"Do not give them cover to end your revolution, and stay clear of religious sites," he said in a statement on Twitter.
If the government does not resign, "this is the beginning of the end of Iraq," he said.
Sadr, who has supported the protests, also categorically denied that his supporters were involved in the attack on the Iranian consulate in Najaf.
In addition to using sit-ins and burning tires to close main avenues, protesters have lately targeted Iraqi economic interests in the south by blocking key ports and roads to oil fields.
'We don't want Iranians'
Earlier in Najaf, protesters accused the Iraqi authorities of turning against their own people to defend Iran.
"All the riot police in Najaf and the security forces started shooting at us as if we were burning Iraq as a whole," a protester who witnessed the burning of the consulate said, asking that he not be identified.
Another protester, Ali, described the attack on the consulate as "a brave act and a reaction from the Iraqi people. We don't want the Iranians."
But he predicted more violence: "There will be revenge from Iran, I'm sure. They're still here and the security forces are going to keep shooting at us."
TRT World spoke with Saad al Muttalib, a member of the Baghdad local government, for more on "crisis cells" set up by the government.
TV channels suspended
The US Embassy denounced a recent decision by Iraq's media regulator to suspend nine TV channels, calling for the Communications and Media Commission to reverse its decision. Thursday's statement from the US Embassy in Baghdad also condemned attacks and harassment against journalists.
Local channel Dijla TV had its license suspended on Tuesday for its coverage of the protests, and its office was closed and equipment confiscated, according an official from one of the channels under threat.
Other channels have been asked by the regulatory commission to sign a pledge “agreeing to adhere to its rules,” said the official, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
Meanwhile, Tehran called for a "responsible, strong and effective" response from Iraqi leadership to the consulate incident.
Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, saying it was perpetrated by "people outside of the genuine protesters" in a statement, adding that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations between the countries.
TRT World spoke with Ahmed Rushdi, a foreign policy adviser to the Iraqi parliament, on why more protesters have died in Iraq than any of the other countries in which protests are taking place.
Amnesty International denounces violence
Amnesty International denounced the violence, calling it a bloodbath that “must stop now.”
“The scenes from Nasiriyah this morning more closely resemble a war zone than city streets and bridges. This brutal onslaught is just the latest in a long series of deadly events where Iraqi security forces meted out appalling violence against largely peaceful protesters,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director for the rights groups.
In Basra, security forces were deployed in the city’s main roads to prevent protesters from staging sit-ins on important avenues.
Basra’s streets were open as of Thursday morning, but highways leading to the two main Gulf commodities ports in Umm Qasr and Khor al Zubair remained closed.
Schools and official public institutions were also closed.