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Gunmen Open Fire On Protesters In Baghdad


An attack in Baghdad is threatening to turn months of anti-government demonstrations into an all-out conflict. Men in cars opened fire on protesters yesterday in the heart of the capital and killed more than two dozen people, according to security forces, and wounded dozens more. Now, protesters who have blocked bridges or attacked political buildings have been fired on before by security forces or militias. More than 430 people have died in just the last two months. But this attack comes as the country is in an especially weak political moment.

NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. Jane, thanks for being with us.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What more do we know about the victims and who did the shooting?

ARRAF: Well, I've spoken to witnesses who were there, and the gunmen came in the dark. Not only was it night, but they had cut the power, or someone had cut the power, to the square where the protest is centered. People describe pickup trucks full of gunmen. They opened fire on mostly young men who were protesting, facing off against security forces. These young men are demanding a new government. They're demanding jobs, dignity. They want their country back, and they want Iranian influence to end. They say it's taken over.

SIMON: And what is it like on the streets of Baghdad today? What has the public reaction been like?

ARRAF: Well, I went to the square where it happened, and there was a really moving scene. There's a lot of grief. Protesters were gathered around these little, thin candles that were stuck onto the pavement. And there was still blood on the pavement. This is what it sounded like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Sobbing, non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: So the guy who's sobbing there - this really big guy wearing what would normally be a very scary black mask with a skeleton on it. But he's just wracked with grief. And he says, I hope you're in a better place than we are here. And he's right because they're in a very bad place. Protesters are being killed. They're being kidnapped. They've gotten a little bit of what they wanted, but they're still out there in the streets determined to stay. And it's very, very dangerous for them.

SIMON: Yeah, you do hear the agony in their voices. This violence has been going on for months, one way or another. The prime minister resigned because of the protest. What's going into making these attacks?

ARRAF: So there isn't a clear group that bears responsibility here, but when you talk to most people, they say they believe it's Iran-backed militias because apart from the Iraqi government, which has collapsed, it's Iran that has the most to lose here because that is one of the key demands - to end their influence. But all of the people who were there talk about an organized effort by these gunmen.

I spoke to a medic named Safa who treated some of the wounded. This is what he had to say.

SAFA: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He describes five pickup trucks and three minibuses coming in with what he says were large numbers of gunmen with different kinds of weapons. He says they used tear gas and red smoke that the military uses, as well. And he said they were also shooting from a parking garage nearby and the tops of buildings. And all of these witnesses described a similar story. They also say security forces withdrew. And, in fact, according to security sources, police were among those who were killed.

SIMON: NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.