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A demonstrator holds an Iraqi flag near burning tires during ongoing anti-government protests in Nassiriya, Iraq November 24, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS

Baghdad: Iraqi authorities on Thursday said they had set up “crisis cells” that would be jointly led by military leaders and civilian governors in Iraq’s provinces in order to stem spiralling popular unrest, according to a military statement.

The statement said the cells would be headed by provincial governors but that military leaders would be appointed as members and “take over military and security services in (each) province.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi military said Thursday it had deployed commanders to strife-torn southern provinces to “restore order”, a day after anti-government protesters torched an Iranian consulate.

The military command said “an emergency unit has been set up under the supervision of the governors” to “impose security and restore order”.

“On the orders of the commander in chief of the armed forces, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, some military commanders have been appointed to this unit to direct and control all security and military forces and assist the governors in their mission,” it said in a statement.

Also on Thursday, Iraqi security forces shot dead 16 protesters in the southern city of Nassiriya, medical sources said, and authorities imposed a curfew in Najaf after demonstrators burned its Iranian consulate.

The inability of Iraq’s government and political class to deal with the unrest and answer protesters’ demands has fuelled public anger.

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Iraqis mourn a protester shot dead by security forces in Nassirya. Image Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has promised electoral and anti-corruption reform but barely begun delivering while security forces have shot dead hundreds of mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Baghdad and southern cities.

The protests, which began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and have spread through southern cities, are the most complex challenge facing the Shi’ite-dominated ruling class that has controlled state institutions and patronage networks since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled long-time Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein.

Young, mostly Shi’ite protesters say politicians are corrupt, beholden to foreign powers - especially Iran - and they blame them for a failure to recover from years of conflict despite relative calm since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017.

Security forces opened fire on protesters who had gathered on a bridge in Nassiriya before dawn, medical sources said.

Sixteen were killed and dozens wounded, they said.

A curfew was imposed in Najaf after protesters stormed and set fire to the Iranian consulate late on Wednesday. Businesses and government offices remained closed in the city, state media reported.

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Protesters burn down Iranian consulate in Najaf. Image Credit: Reuters

“The burning of the consulate last night was a brave act and a reaction from the Iraqi people - we don’t want the Iranians,” said Ali, a protester in Najaf.

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“There will be revenge from Iran I’m sure, they’re still here and the security forces are going to keep shooting us.” A protester who witnessed the burning of the consulate said security forces had opened fire to try to stop it.

“All the riot police in Najaf and the security forces started shooting at us, as if we were burning Iraq as a whole,” he said, declining to give his name.

The military commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of paramilitary groups whose most powerful factions are close to Tehran, said the groups would use full force against anyone trying to attack Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, who is based in Najaf.

“We will cut the hand of anyone trying to get near (Grand Ayatollah Ali) al-Sistani,” commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said in a statement on the PMF website.

Observers said the events in Najaf would likely bring a tough response, rather than pushing the government into enacting reforms.

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An Iraqi protester in Nassirya. Image Credit: Reuters

“Apart from casual statements ... the government has not announced any plan (or) given any clear account of what measures it will take,” said Dhiaa al-Asadi, advisor to powerful populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “Initiatives are going to be scarce.”

Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, said the government might use the burning of the Iranian consulate as a pretext for an even more heavy-handed crackdown.

“The downside from the protesters’ point of view is this might reinforce the government’s narrative that protesters are infiltrators, saboteurs and up to no good,” he said.

“It sends a message to Iran but also works to the advantage of people like Muhandis ... (giving) a pretext to clamp down and framing what happened as a threat against Sistani.”

Sistani rarely speaks on political issues but traditionally wields enormous influence over public opinion, especially in Iraq’s southern Shi’ite heartland. He has used Friday sermons in recent weeks to urge the government to enact real reform and stop killing demonstrators.

Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly unarmed protesters. Some demonstrators have lobbed petrol bombs, bricks and fired slingshots at police.