BAGHDAD — Unknown assailants killed a dozen unarmed anti-government protesters in the Iraqi capital in an attack the president blamed on criminal gangs, and an unmanned drone bombed the home of a prominent Shiite cleric who has been a major supporter of the protest movement.
The bombing of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s home in the southern city of Najaf came a few hours after the overnight attack on the protesters, who were in a building where many supporters of Mr. al-Sadr have been gathering to stage demonstrations demanding a change in the system of government, the elimination of corruption and a curbing of Iran’s influence on the country. No one was injured in the Najaf bombing on Mr. al-Sadr’s home.
Lethal assaults on protesters by unknown gunmen have been rare since the protests began more than two months ago. And the back-to-back attacks raised tensions between the Iraqi security forces and the protesters.
“The people of Iraq are at a boiling point,” said Sa’ad Maye al-Hilfi, a member of the Parliament’s Defense and Security Committee, which planned to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday.
The identity of the attackers is a mystery. No one claimed responsibility and with the country’s security forces pulled in different directions, it is not clear who, if anyone, could have ordered the violence.
President Barham Salih has been acting temporarily as the head of state since the prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, resigned last month and the Parliament has yet to name a replacement. The prime minister is the commander-in-chief and in the absence of his leadership, it is unclear who exactly is in charge or determining the security forces’ priorities.
Some of the forces are under the command of the Defense Ministry, others are under the command of the Interior Ministry, while others are controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces, which technically report to the joint operations command.
Some of the Popular Mobilization Forces have close links to Iran and are among the 30 armed groups who are now being integrated into the security structure. But there are also a few heavily armed groups close to Iran that have remained outside that integration process.
Complicating the security landscape further, there are two or three armed extremist groups that oppose the government, as the protesters do. But these groups seem bent on disrupting the peaceful protests with armed attacks.
Their presence makes it possible for rogue elements within the various government security forces to operate with impunity and blame their activities on extremist groups.
President Salih said the shooting of the protesters was “a criminal, armed attack carried out by criminal and outlaw gangs.” He admonished the security forces, saying their responsibility was not only to protect “the peaceful demonstrators and public and private property” but also to “chase the outlaw criminals and arrest them and bring them to the judiciary for punishment.”
The protesters were shot near the Sinak Bridge which spans the Tigris River — one of three bridges that have been taken over by protesters. In addition to the deaths, about 100 people were injured in the shootings.
The assault started in a six-story parking garage that overlooks the bridge and the Tigris River. The garage is one of two buildings that have become protester strongholds.
“What happened was that at 8 p.m. yesterday, we were surprised when we heard a fight happen on the fourth floor and then suddenly there was shooting,” said Murtada Saad, 18, a tuk tuk driver who works around the bridge and had driven his three-wheeled vehicle into the building.
Soon after, there was shooting outside as well as in a nearby square which the protesters have also occupied. Witnesses described a chaotic situation in which they said some shooters appeared to be wearing the military uniforms of government forces. Some were wearing uniforms of the Popular Mobilization Forces and some were wearing civilian clothes.
The protesters called on the Iraqi military to intervene. But some soldiers were attacked when they arrived, adding to the confusion and forcing them to retreat.
Witnesses said at least some of the shooters, maybe all of them, sped away in white pickup trucks. Video footage showed at least seven vehicles. The sound of continuous shooting can be heard in the video as the trucks leave.
Over the past several weeks, followers of Mr. al-Sadr have occupied the parking garage near the Sinak bridge. Mr. Saad, the tuk tuk driver, said Saturday that a couple of days ago, some people had come to the building saying they were from the south of Iraq and had set up tents on the fourth floor.
“None of our guys searched the two tents because, unfortunately, some of our guys take bribes and anyone can bring anything into the building,” he said. “So they brought weapons into the building.”
“In the beginning, we were attacked from inside the building by the infiltrators and then we were surprised by heavy shooting and many vehicles,” he said. “There was a literal massacre.”
The Popular Mobilization Commission told its followers to obey the directives of the Iraqi defense forces and to stay away from the centers of protest.
In a tweet, Mr. al-Sadr told his followers to go home for now or to stay in the heavily populated protest squares.
Some of the protesters who had manned the Sinak Bridge were there on Saturday to mourn their lost friends.
Karar Jabar, 25, said he had gotten to know Mustafa Kamal, 21, over the last month of protest. They visited each other — at their posts on different bridges.
“We were surprised by the heavy fire around 8 last night. I tried to speak to them, but they were completely evil killers,” said Mr. Jabar.
“My friend Mustafa, whom I came to see here at Sinak, got killed by sniper fire,” he said as he bent down to light the votive candles he had placed on the concrete around the dried blood where his friend had fallen. “They treated us brutally as if we are their enemies.”