BAGHDAD: Iraqi protesters set fire to the entrance of a shrine in the southern holy city of Najaf last night and security forces fired tear gas to disperse them, police and a demonstrator at the scene said, risking more bloodshed after a rare day of calm.
The demonstrator sent a video to Reuters of a doorway to the Hakim shrine blazing as protesters cheered and filmed it on their mobile phones. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.
The incident took place during one of the bloodiest weeks of Iraq’s anti-government unrest, which erupted last month. On Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi promised to quit to try to stem the violence and public anger.
Demonstrations continued elsewhere including the southern city of Nassiriya where protesters earlier surrounded a police station and in Baghdad. But there were far fewer reports of casualties than on the previous two days, when scores were killed nationwide in the Iraqi capital and the south in clashes with security forces.
Abdul Mahdi’s resignation announcement came hours after a call from Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric for the government to step down to end the unrest. The burning on Wednesday of the Iranian consulate in Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s influential Shi’ite clergy, only deepened the crisis.
The unrest, which has killed more than 400 people, mostly demonstrators, amounts to the biggest challenge for Iraq since Islamic State insurgents seized vast swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory in 2014.
It pits mostly young, disaffected Shi’ite protesters against a Shi’ite-dominated government backed by Iran and accused of squandering Iraq’s oil wealth while infrastructure and living standards deteriorate. Some anger has been directed at religious authorities which many protesters view as part of an out of touch ruling elite.
Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against protesters for nearly two months. Scores of the more than 400 dead have been killed in recent days, particularly in Nassiriya and Najaf.