At least 45 killed in Iraq protests after Iranian consulate torched

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.

Iraqi security forces are reported to have shot at protesters in at least 3 cities

Angry demonstrators defy authorities and direct rage at meddling Iran 0:57

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 Nassiriya when troops opened fire on demonstrators who blocked a bridge before dawn on Thursday and later gathered outside a police station. Medical sources said dozens of others were wounded.

Four people were killed in the capital of Baghdad, where security forces opened fire with live ammunition and rubber bullets against protesters near a bridge over the Tigris River. Twelve died during the day in clashes in Najaf.

In Nassiriya thousands of mourners took to the streets, defying a curfew, to bury their dead after the mass shooting.

Video of protesters cheering in the night as bright flames billowed from the consulate were a stunning image after years in which Tehran's influence among Shia Muslims in Arab states has been a defining factor in Middle East politics.

The bloodshed that followed was one of the most violent days since the uprising began at the start of October with anti-corruption demonstrations that have since swelled into a revolt against authorities scorned by young demonstrators as stooges of Tehran.

An Iraqi demonstrator stands at a roadblock in the central holy shrine city of Najaf on Wednesday. The Iranian consulate there was reduced to a charred ruin after it was stormed overnight. (Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images)

Iran closes border crossing

Iran closed the Mehran border crossing to Iraq on Thursday night because of security reasons, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported, citing a local border official.

"With attention to the recent events and the unrest in the country of Iraq, the Mehran border has been closed from tonight," Mojtaba Soleimani, the manager of the border post said, according to Mehr.

He said it was not clear when the border would reopen.

In Najaf, a city of ancient pilgrimage shrines that serves as seat of Iraq's powerful Shia clergy, the Iranian consulate was reduced to a charred ruin after it was stormed overnight.

'We don't want the Iranians'

The protesters, overwhelmingly Shia, 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 told Reuters, asking that he not be identified.

A wounded protester is carried to get treated during clashes with security forces on Rasheed Street in Baghdad on Thursday. Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia south. (Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press)

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."

Unyielding response

So far, the authorities have been unyielding in response to the unrest, shooting dead demonstrators with live ammunition and tear gas, while floating proposals for political reform that the protesters dismiss as trivial and cosmetic.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has rejected calls to resign, after meetings with senior politicians that were attended by the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, the elite unit that directs its militia allies abroad.

Smoke surrounds Iraqi demonstrators during the ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad. (Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters)

Abdul Mahdi on Thursday summoned a senior military commander in Dhi Qar province, where Nassiriya is located, to Baghdad to explain why the situation had deteriorated, a military statement said.

In a statement that suggested more violence 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.

'We will cut the hand'

The paramilitary fighters would use full force against anyone who threatened Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Cmdr. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said in a statement posted on the PMF website.

"We will cut the hand of anyone trying to get near al-Sistani," he said.

Influential populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a fresh call for the government to resign, while warning 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.

'A pretext to clamp down'

Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, said the government and its paramilitary allies could use the consulate incident to justify crushing the demonstrations.

"It sends a message to Iran, but it also works to the advantage of people like Muhandis," he said. The paramilitaries could use the consulate incident as "a pretext to clamp down, and framing what happened as a threat against Sistani."

Sistani himself has appeared to back the protesters since the unrest erupted, calling on politicians to meet the popular demands for reform.

Authorities set up "crisis cells" in several provinces to try to restore order, a military statement said on Thursday. They would be led by provincial governors but include military leaders who would take charge of local security forces.

Iraqi demonstrators wearing protective gear rest amid clashes with security forces in Baghdad on Wednesday. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)