The Iraqi army on Wednesday blamed “unidentified gunmen” for the death of six demonstrators earlier this week in the southern Basra province.
“The protesters slain yesterday in downtown Basra were killed by unknown gunmen in a car,” army commander Jamil al-Shammari said in a statement a day after the massacre.
Al-Shammari denied reports Iraqi security forces fired on protesters outside provincial headquarters but went on to assert that the demonstrations “were not entirely peaceful in nature”.
“Security forces were surprised to find a group of demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails, burning tires and attacking citizens,” he said.
“At one point,” al-Shammari added, “gunmen in a white vehicle killed a number of demonstrators, prompting the authorities to impose a curfew.”
The army commander said “certain groups” -- he did not identify by name -- were “employing criminal gangs in Basra to assassinate citizens and sow strife in the city”.
Authorities in Basra on Tuesday imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in hopes of containing mounting tension after protesters stormed the provincial headquarters and clashed with security forces.
The government accused “saboteurs” among the protesters of vandalizing public property, while protesters accuse security forces of using live ammunition to disperse peaceful demonstrations.
On Wednesday, Iraq’s Sairoon coalition -- led by firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- called for the dismissal of army commanders in Basra, blaming them for the deaths.
“The government -- federal and local -- is tasked with safeguarding the lives of demonstrators and preventing the use of undue force,” leading Sairoon member Hassan al-Akouli said at a news conference in Baghdad.
He called on authorities in Basra to begin an “immediate investigation” into the recent violence.
Late Wednesday, a group of demonstrators lit up the municipality building of Basra, according to the local sources.
Sources said a group of people who broke the security siege gathered in front of the public building and set it on fire.
Since early July, Iraq’s Shia-majority southern and central provinces, especially Basra, have been rocked by popular protests, which at one point spread to the capital.
Demonstrators demand improved public services, more job opportunities and an end to perceived government corruption.
Meanwhile, negotiations remain underway over the formation of the country’s next government following May 12 parliamentary polls, results of which were disputed for several months.