United Nations envoy to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert strongly condemned on Saturday the shooting of unarmed protesters in Baghdad on Friday night, which left 25 people dead and more than 130 wounded.
“The deliberate killing of unarmed protesters by armed elements is nothing less than an atrocity against the people of Iraq,” she said.
She also urged Iraqi armed forces to spare no effort to protect the peaceful protesters from violence by armed elements operating outside state control, and at the same time called on peaceful protesters to cooperate constructively to ensure the peaceful protests can be duly protected.
On Friday night, unidentified gunmen targeted anti-government demonstrators in central Baghdad in the latest escalation against peaceful protesters in the country.
“Acts of violence that are gang-driven, arising from external loyalties, politically motivated or intended to settle scores, risk placing Iraq on a dangerous trajectory,” said Hennis-Plasschaert, who also heads up the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
It was essential, she underscored, “to join hands in defending fundamental rights, such as the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.”
Anti-government protesters wielding a blood-drenched flag returned to Baghdad's central plaza on Saturday after Friday night’s bloody attacks.
Buildings surrounding the square were pockmarked with bullet holes. One demonstrator collected as many as a dozen spent cartridges.
The attack, which took place in darkness moments after the power was cut, marked a major escalation in assaults against protesters that have been taking place in recent weeks.
It was among the deadliest since October 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran's influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations.
Friday's attacks also came hours after Washington slapped sanctions on the leader of Asaib al-Haq, a powerful Iran-backed militia accused of being behind deadly sniping attacks on protesters. The US Treasury sanctioned leader Qais al-Khazali, his brother Laith al-Khazali, a commander in the group, and Husain Falih Aziz al-Lami.
Demonstrators feared the attacks would be followed by armed street fighting and more violence that would undermine the peaceful tone of their mass rallies.
“Everyone is terrified,” said Noor, a protester who provided only her first name for fear of reprisal.
“We don't want this to become a street war. That is why we are trying to stay peaceful. But day after day we find that we are alone.”
Anti-government activists blame the attacks on Iran-backed militias, which have staged similar assaults against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country's southern cities. On Thursday, the militias attempted to hold their own demonstration in the square to counter anti-government protesters, many of whom were attacked with knives by unknown assailants. They later withdrew.
Members of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces have said the attacks during the protests have been aimed at infiltrators of the anti-government movement who were looking to cause disturbances.