Iraq has declared it is setting up “crisis cells” in order to contain spiralling unrest in the country, after protesters burned down an Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf.
The Iraqi military command said it was forming an emergency unit jointly led by military leaders and civilian governors in Iraq’s southern provinces, as Tehran called for a “strong and effective” response.
The torching of the consulate in Najaf, the southern holy city, on Wednesday night escalated violence in Iraq after weeks of mass demonstrations that aim to bring down a government seen as corrupt and backed by the Islamic Republic.
Video showed crowds outside the consulate shouting “Out, out Iran!” and waving Iraqi flags as the building burned. The Iranian staff managed to escape out the back door before the building was set on fire.
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According to police in Najaf, 35 protesters and 32 members of the Iraqi security forces were wounded. Many were reportedly choked on tear gas that had been fired into the crowd.
A curfew was imposed on the city on Thursday.
Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, which was the strongest expression yet of the anti-Iranian sentiment in the country, saying that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations between the countries.
Violence across southern Iraq continued throughout the night, with security forces killing 16 protesters and wounding 90 in the last 24 hours.
Most were demonstrators who had been blocking the Nasr Bridge in the oil-rich province of Nassiriya. Security forces moved in late Wednesday to open the main thoroughfare and fired live ammunition into the group to disperse them.
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 so far by security forces, which have routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities.
Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Reuters the government might use the burning of the Iranian consulate as a pretext for an even more heavy-handed crackdown.
"The downside from the protesters’ point of view is this might reinforce the government’s narrative that protesters are infiltrators, saboteurs and up to no good," he said.
"It sends a message to Iran but also works to the advantage of people like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (commander of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Force militia) giving a pretext to clamp down and framing what happened as a threat against Sistani."