At least 18 people were killed and 865 wounded in the night between Monday and Tuesday after masked Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala, medical and security sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, and protesters said they did not know whether the masked men were riot police, special forces or Iran-linked militias. Reports later clarified that the masked men were indeed "security forces." The protesters said Iraqi soldiers had been stationed around the protest site but withdrew after the attackers began firing tear gas and live fire.
The provincial governor, Nassif al-Khutabi, denied that any protesters were killed, adding there were some injuries among security forces.
This is one of the deadliest single attacks on protesters since anti-government demonstrations erupted earlier this month. Three protesters also died in the southern city of Nassiriya from wounds sustained in earlier protests, medical sources said. Various reports on social media claimed dozens more were killed overnight on Monday.
Iraqis took to the streets for a fourth day on Monday in a second wave of protests against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government and a political elite they say are corrupt and out of touch. The total death toll since the unrest started on October 1 is now at least 250 people.
The unrest, driven by discontent over economic hardship and deep-seated corruption, has broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq, which from 2003 to 2017 endured a foreign occupation, civil war and an Islamic State insurgency.
Security forces fired tear gas at school and university students on Monday who defied a warning from Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and joined thousands in Baghdad protesting against his government. A senior security official estimated that 25,000 protesters took part in the demonstration in the capital.
Students skipped classes at several universities and secondary schools in Baghdad and across Iraq's majority-Shiite south to take part in the protests, despite the government ordering schools and universities to operate normally.
Three protesters were killed in Baghdad, including a 22-year-old female medical student, the first woman to be killed since the protests began. At least 100 were wounded, including seventeen students.
Soldiers were seen beating high school students with batons in two Baghdad districts. A Defence Ministry statement condemned the incident and said the soldiers did not represent the Iraqi army as a whole. It did not say if they would be punished.
Populist Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who backs parliament's largest bloc and helped bring Abdul Mahdi's fragile coalition government to power, called on Monday for early elections after a curfew was announced in the capital Baghdad.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now