An armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr on Saturday, hours after his supporters gathered in Baghdad in response to a bloody night of attacks by unknown gunmen that officials said left at least 25 protesters dead and 130 wounded.
The attack was among the deadliest since October 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. Security forces regularly use live rounds and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations, leading to heavy casualties.
Gunfire continued until the early hours of Saturday morning. The assailants first unleashed the deadly assault on Baghdad’s Khilani Square and Sinak Bridge, driving through the areas that are the epicentre of the popular uprising.
Mr Al Sadr has backed the protests, but demonstrators have been wary of his support as they feared it could lead to confrontations with pro-government forces.
Early on 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.
Mr Al Sadr is currently in Iran.
"This is a clear attack that could kindle a war – maybe a civil war – in Iraq. Self-restraint is essential," Mr Al Sadr's spokesman, Salah Al Obeidi, said.
Dozens of the cleric's supporters flocked to his home after the attack to show support, waving Iraqi flags and his picture while chanting, "We are all your soldiers!"
Anti-government activists have sought to blame supporters of Iran-backed Iraqi militias, which have staged similar attacks against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country’s southern cities. Iraqi security forces were stationed on streets leading to the square by the early morning.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN Secretary General's special representative for Iraq, condemned the shooting of protesters on Friday night.
“The deliberate killing of unarmed protesters by armed elements is nothing less than an atrocity against the people of Iraq,” she said. “The perpetrators must be identified and brought to justice without delay.”
The UN envoy urged Iraqi Armed Forces to protect peaceful protesters from violence committed by armed elements operating outside state control.
In the first comment on the incident from a senior Iraqi official, President Barham Salih also called on authorities to "identify the criminals and bring them to justice".
The escalation in violence comes as parliament tries to pick a prime minister to succeed Adel Abdul Mahdi, who submitted his resignation last Sunday.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric said on Friday that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference, in an apparent nod to Iran's influence in the country.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Iran’s interests.
Mr Al Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.
The departure of Mr Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.
Mr Al Sistani has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.
He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.
“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalised in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Mr Al Sistani said in his Friday sermon in Karbala.
“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said. He also said Mr Al Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.
The killing of protesters in southern cities by security forces after the burning of Iran’s consulate in Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shiite clergy, paved the way for Mr Al Sistani to withdraw his support for Mr Abdul Mahdi.
Mr Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Mr Al Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests in which security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.