BAGHDAD — Iraqi security officers opened fire on protesters in southern Iraq on Thursday, killing at least 18, as the government sought to quell violence that burst out Wednesday night in an attack on the Iranian Consulate in Najaf.
The violence centered on the southern city of Nasiriya, where on Wednesday the government sent a special security force to keep the peace. Instead of using tear gas or sound bombs, however, the hard-line reinforcements from the Interior Ministry’s Quick Reaction Forces opened fire on the mostly unarmed protesters at a sit-in, killing at least 16 and wounding 160, according to a report from the Iraqi security forces’ Joint Operational Command.
The other two fatalities were recorded in Najaf, one of Iraq’s holiest cities, where protesters the day before had set upon the Iranian Consulate, throwing gasoline bombs and chanting anti-Iranian slogans.
The attacks and unrest are part of a series of anti-Iranian protests and riots that have broken out in recent weeks in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. These are all states where Shiite Iran has sought to extend its influence in the years since the United States-led invasion of Iraq severely diminished the power of rival Sunni governments and factions.
The onslaught in Nasiriya against unarmed protesters infuriated many people, inciting them to join the protesters and causing an outcry among political figures.
In Nasiriya, some armed tribal leaders joined the protesters. The tribes represent a formidable force and so far have not entered the fray. But if they did rally to the side of the protesters, the government could have trouble maintaining control.
The governor of Dhi Qar Province, of which Nasiriya is the capital, asked Mr. Mehdi to withdraw the Interior Ministry forces and especially their commander, Lt. Gen. Jamil Al-Shimmeri, who had ordered his troops to remove the protesters from the bridges over the Euphrates River that they had blocked.
“The ongoing campaign, with its bloody incidents since dawn, has obstructed efforts to calm down the situation, especially after our joint decision with the police command to withdraw the anti-riot forces outside the limits of Nasirya city and not to clash with the demonstrators,” the governor, Adil Al-Dikhili, wrote to the Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul Mehdi.
The Quick Reaction Forces, which were responsible for at least some of the shooting in Nasiriya — it is not clear whether Federal Police Units were also shooting — have previously drawn criticism for firing live ammunition and shooting tear gas canisters directly at Baghdad protesters, often giving them lethal head injuries.
In a separate action, the Iraqi government shut down Dijla Television in Baghdad almost immediately after the channel broadcast a report about allegedly corrupt practices by the director of the Communication and Media Commission, Ali Al-Khuwayldi, accusing him of accepting an apartment in London in exchange for blocking competition in communications licensing.
Dijla has been particularly assiduous about reporting on the protests, traveling to provincial capitals and interviewing scores of demonstrators. This week one of its cameramen was beaten by a member of the security forces in Al Muthanna Province and was filmed by a colleague as he bled on the sidewalk after the assault.
The Communication and Media Commission, which has power over all broadcasters in Iraq, had been threatening to shut down nine channels, all of them international and many of them reporting critically on the government. The agency is controlled by the Dawa Party, a Shiite political party that has had ties to Iran.
The United States Embassy condemned the commission’s actions, saying that they “threatened freedom of speech.” It further noted that the commission’s “Nov. 26 physical closure of the Dijla TV office in Baghdad, and the attack on Dijla TV correspondents, are not consistent with the Iraqi government’s duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression, to protect journalists and to tolerate opinions with which it may disagree.”
The Communications Commission responded that, “We do not take orders from a foreign embassy.”
It defended its decision to close the channels based on the “observation of the rhetoric of these channels and the determination that there were catastrophic violations in the media rules derived from the international conventions and protocols” that relate to news media freedom versus speech that incites violence and disturbs public order.