An armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr on Saturday, hours after his supporters deployed in Baghdad in response to an attack that left 17 protesters dead.
The developments marked a worrying turn for the anti-government protests rocking Iraq since October, the country’s largest and deadliest grassroots movement in decades.
The mostly young protesters in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square had long feared a spiral into chaos, and on Friday it appeared their apprehensions were well-placed.
After nightfall, armed men on pick-up trucks attacked a large building where protesters had been camped out for weeks near the capital’s Al-Sinek bridge.
Security forces deployed on the bridge itself did not intervene, witnesses said, as the attackers ousted protesters from the building in a volley of gunfire.
At least 17 people were killed and dozens more wounded, medics told AFP, with ambulances shuttling teenagers suffering gunshot and stab wounds to nearby field clinics.
Panicked demonstrators rushed out into the street, sending out calls through social media for people to come to their main gathering place in Tahrir Square.
By Saturday morning, hundreds had arrived.
Drone Hits Sadr Home
Many of the new arrivals were suspected to be members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), the paramilitary group headed by Sadr.
They are nicknamed “blue helmets” for the headgear they typically wear, and witnesses said they were visible in large numbers in Tahrir before dawn on Saturday.
A source within Saraya told AFP one of its own members had died in the overnight clash, and that more unarmed members had been sent to Tahrir “to protect protesters.”
Sadr has backed the protests, but demonstrators have been wary of his support as they feared it could pave the way for confrontations with pro-government forces.
Early Saturday, a drone dropped a bomb on his home in the shrine city of Najaf, damaging the exterior wall, sources within his party told AFP.
Sadr, a notoriously versatile figure, is currently in Iran.
In Baghdad, trucks of armed men briefly blocked a main road near Tahrir early on Saturday, firing their weapons and shouting, witnesses said.