(CNSNews.com) – Iraq’s military declared a curfew overnight in Baghdad, scrambling to deal with demonstrations in several cities that have turned violent and cost dozens of lives, as protestors demand both economic reforms and an end to Iran’s influence in Iraq.
“Iran out, out! Baghdad will be free!” is one of the slogans being chanted by protestors.
At least five protestors were killed in clashes with security forces in the capital on Monday, and around 100 more were injured. According to Iraq’s Shafaq News, police also fired teargas at students who took part in protests despite warnings not to do so by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The military command in Baghdad said it would enforce a curfew from midnight to 6 AM on Tuesday morning, “to protect the demonstrators and prevent those who want to target them.”
A wave of protest action – the second since early October – began on Friday. Since then at least 74 people have been killed and hundreds injured, according to Iraq’s Human Rights Commission.
It says most of the deaths and injuries occurred during clashes between protestors and personnel guarding headquarters of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
Iran’s influence in Iraq soared as a result of Tehran’s backing for Iraqi Shi’ite militias which came together to fight against ISIS after the Sunni terrorist group seized last areas of Iraqi territory in 2014.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group formed in 2015 with the backing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Qods Force, was dominated by pre-existing militias such as the Badr organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kata’ib Hezbollah.
On Friday, at least 12 protestors died during an attack on the Badr organization’s headquarters in Diwaniyah, a city near Najaf in southern Iraq, while several more died as protestors stormed the offices of AAH in two other southern cities, Nasiriya and Amarah.
Demonstrators also targeted Iran’s consulate in Karbala, where during protests in early October people were filmed ripping an image of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on a Badr organization billboard.
During that earlier series of protests, around 150 protestors were killed and thousands were wounded, mostly in Baghdad. Reuters later reported exclusively that snipers blamed for some of those deaths had been deployed by Iranian-backed militias, and that IRGC commanders from Iran had advised Iraqi intelligence and security officials on handling the protests.
On Friday, the first anniversary of his taking office, Abdul Madhi in a bid to allay popular discontent announced reform proposals, including cabinet changes and increased welfare for the poor.
He also promised to see through with a decree – first issued last July but not evidently successful so far – to merge PMF militias into the state’s armed forces.
But the offered concessions showed little sign of having calmed sentiment, and the planned protests went ahead.
Meanwhile Moqtada al-Sadr, the veteran anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric who has repositioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist and critic of Iran, has thrown his support behind the protests, saying his followers would “protect” the demonstrators.
Sadr, who controls the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, has called on Abdul Mahdi to hold early elections.
Earlier this month, a post on Khamenei’s official account accused “enemies” of trying to sow discord between Iraq and Iran, but said the effort has failed and “their conspiracy won’t be effective.”
On Sunday, the State Department said the U.S. was “closely monitoring the situation in Iraq and calls on all sides to reject the cycle of violence.”
Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus also raised concern about “the forced closure of media outlets and the pressure to censor reporting about the protests” – apparently in reference to the government’s decision on Saturday to suspend the operation in Iraq of two Saudi-based news channels, Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath.
Kata’ib Hezbollah, a key PMF constituent militia, says the protests in Iraq show that “external parties” are trying to foster internal strife in the country.
Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah and AAH were both responsible for deadly attacks on U.S. forces during the Iraq war, as well as sectarian kidnappings and killings, according to the U.S. military. The U.S. has designated Kata’ib Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization since 2009.