A total of 240 people have been killed so far; 149 people were killed during an earlier wave of protests this month, followed by 73 prior to the attack in Karbala, a site of pilgrimage where the Shia martyr Hussein was killed during a major battle in the seventh century.
Although it is not yet known who was behind the attack, what we do know so far is that it is unclear if these masked men were riot police, special forces, or Iran-linked militias. Additionally, it is said that Iraqi soldiers were stationed around the protest site, but withdrew after the attackers began firing teargas and live fire. There are also questions over what exactly prompted the attack.
The provincial governor, Nassif al-Khattabi, denied that any protesters were killed but said there were some injuries among security forces. He said videos that had spread online were fabricated and not from Karbala. Footage purporting to show the aftermath of the attack showed fires and people running away to the backdrop of heavy gunfire.
His description of events, however, contradicted that of people on the ground. One demonstrator, for example, described seeing “masked men dressed all in black and they fired live bullets toward the square.” The same demonstrator spoke of how he saw people fall dead and wounded around him, and how they tried to escape but ended running into moving checkpoints set up by these forces. According to this demonstrator, these same forces arrested people and searched their phones for video evidence of what had taken place in the square. Other witness accounts describe the moment when hundreds of protesters at the encampment were shot at by someone inside of a moving vehicle. Masked gunmen are also said to have arrived and started shooting at the protesters.
The leaderless protests in Karbala and across other Shia-dominated cities in Iraq have often turned violent, with security forces opening fire and demonstrators responding by torching government buildings and headquarters of Iran-backed militias—who along with the Shia-dominated government and political parties have been the focus of the protesters’ anger. The demonstrations are largely fuelled by anger at corruption, economic stagnation and poor public services. Despite its vast oil wealth, Iraq suffers from high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure, with frequent power outages that force many to rely on private generators. The protests have grown and demonstrators are now calling for sweeping changes, not only the government’s resignation.
The current wave of demonstrations comes at a time when Iraq is on the road to recovery after decades of sectarian violence, successive wars (both internal and external), sanctions triggered by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 90s, the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and the short-lived, yet devastating campaign of terror waged by the ISIS/Islamic State. The hard-earned tranquillity appears set to give way to more instability once again.
However, to avoid heading down that road again the Iraqi government can and should try to show more restraint towards protesters. Heavy-handed tactics and the shooting of protesters violence (by security forces or any other actor) will not help to steer the country out of the current malaise. That kind of response will only serve to drive the current wedge between the government and the governed even further. What also remains clear is that the people who have set up and moved into encampments, feel that their concerns need to be addressed urgently. So far it doesn’t appear as though government reshuffles (or promises to do better) will do the trick. The protesters are demanding something more – systemic changes which they hope will improve Iraq’s economic, political and societal reality in meaningful and profound ways.
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