Baghdad, An attack on protesters in Baghdad that left 23 people dead and scores injured, according to the latest official toll, has not prevented people from returning to the streets for anti-government demonstrations on Saturday.
Unidentified assailants opened fire on protesters on al-Khalani Square on Friday night, which also left 135 injured, an source from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior told Efe.
The attackers entered the area in a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles and shot at those gathered for the demo.
Activists took to social media where they suggested the assailants belonged to Shiite groups or militias.
Al-Khalani is located next to a multi-story parking garage that has been occupied by protesters since the movement kicked off two months ago.
It is also close to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the movement that has already forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
The incident, which came after a period of calm, raised fears of more armed attacks targeting protesters who have been cracked down on by security forces who have employed live ammunition.
But these fears have not prevented a large number of Iraqis from taking to al-Khalani Square and the adjacent Tahrir Square to urge reform.
Earlier on the morning, soldiers were deployed to al-Khalani Square and nearby al-Senk Bridge, but they retreated as more and more protesters flocked to the area.
Protesters called on the army personnel to secure the adjacent roads and the entry points to the square, the official source added.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh denounced the “armed criminal attack of criminal gangs,” whom he did not name.
He also stressed “the legitimate right of any citizen to protest and demonstrate peacefully,” without being exposed to “armed and violent reaction.”
“The responsibility of the state security apparatus, in addition to protecting peaceful protesters and public and private property, and preserving the lives of Iraqis, is to prosecute and arrest criminals and criminals, and bring them to justice,” he added.
The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert also denounced the attack.
“The deliberate killing of unarmed protesters by armed elements is nothing less than an atrocity against the people of Iraq,” she said in a statement.
“The perpetrators must be identified and brought to justice without delay,” she added.
Thousands of people convened on Tahrir Square on Friday to make it clear their demands go far beyond the replacement of one prime minister with another.
Over 400 have been killed and thousands more injured since the protests began on 1 October.
The movement gained new momentum on October 25 with protesters coming out to denounce corruption and call for better basic services.
Most of the casualties have been reported in the Iraqi capital and the oil-rich southern parts of the country, where there is a Shiite majority.