At least 19 people, including protesters and three police officers, have been killed in Baghdad in an attack by unidentified gunmen near the Iraqi capital’s main protest camp on Friday, according to reports citing medical and security sources.
More than 70 others were also wounded by gunfire and stabbings near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics added.
It was the most violent flare-up in the capital for weeks and came a week after Iraqi’s pime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.
Gunmen on pick-up trucks late on Friday attacked a large building near the al-Sinak bridge where anti-government protesters had been camped out for weeks, witnesses told the AFP news agency.
The attackers forced the protesters out of the building and live rounds could be heard after the altercation.
State television said the building had been torched “by unidentified men”.
Medics, who had earlier given a toll of three dead, said dozens of other demonstrators were wounded and expected the toll of seven could rise even further.
One female medic at a field clinic nearby said she had treated at least five people for light stab wounds.
The attacks come one day after a string of suspicious stabbing incidents left at least 13 wounded in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Iraq’s leaderless weeks-long protest movement.
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from Baghdad, said the reported violence marked “a very unusual escalation”.
“What we’ve seen so far is casualties occurring because of direct confrontations between protesters and security forces near the front lines.”
More than 400 protesters have been killed and nearly 20,000 wounded since anti-government demonstrations erupted on October 1.
Street protests have roiled Iraq since early October, with demonstrators calling for the resignation of the government, the dissolution of Parliament and an overhaul of the country’s political system, which has been in place since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The demonstrations have turned violent amid accusations from rights groups that Iraqi security members used excessive force against protesters.
On Friday, Iraq’s top Shia leader Ali al-Sistani voiced support for the protests, calling them a “tool of pressure to affect genuine reforms” in the country.
“What matters most is that they [the protests] should not be dragged into acts of violence, chaos and sabotage,” according to a mosque sermon read on his behalf in the southern city of Karbala.
Iraqi authorities have repeatedly accused “outlaws” of taking advantage of peaceful protests to attack demonstrators and security forces, and of vandalising public and private property.
On Sunday, the parliament accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, bowing to a key demand of protesters.
Abdul Mahdi and his government are now serving in a caretaker status until a new cabinet is formed.
On Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, said a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference.
His comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Iran’s interests.