Iraq Protest Death Toll Soars Past 600 After Fresh Weekend Unrest

Over a weekend which late Sunday witnessed what was presumably Iraqi militia-fired missiles score a rare direct hit on the US Embassy in Baghdad, mass protests across multiple cities against both the Iraqi government and American forces' continued presence inspired by Shia firebrand cleric and nationalist Moqtada al-Sadr continued. While the protests stalled on Saturday after Sadr the night before appeared to have withdrawn support for the demonstrations, they were unleashed again Sunday with new ferocity which left at least two more protesters dead amid clashes with police. 

Large anti-government protests have been intermittent for the past few months; however, the last three days have been particularly intense with at least 15 killed and over 200 injured, according figures produced by Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq. 

Fresh Iraq protests over the weekend. Image source: AFP/Getty via CNN.

This brings the total death toll since protests began in October to more than 600, according to the commission as well as Amnesty International. 

Sadr has both given support to the 'nationalist' protests and "million man march" demonstrations which erupted last week calling for an end to American military occupation; however, he's faced accusations of betraying the protesters to Iran when he briefly withdrew support Friday into Saturday, and given he's seen as part of the Shiite religious establishment.

His political faction is also the largest bloc in Iraqi parliament. The popular cleric stirred resentment upon announcing Friday that a "temporary halt" in the resistance to US occupation was needed. “We will do our best to prevent taking Iraq to another possible war,” he said. 

Leader of Iraq’s 'Sadrist Movement,' Muqtada Al-Sadr, via Middle East Monitor.

The most recent protester deaths were in the restive southern city of Nassiriya, per Reuters:

Unidentified gunmen shot dead two protesters in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya after security forces began a crackdown on months-long demonstrations against the country’s largely Iran-backed ruling elite.

And further it appears Iraqi police and security forces are back to using live ammunition in the ongoing crackdown:

At least 75 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, in clashes in Nassiriya overnight when security forces attempted to move them away from bridges in the city, police and health source said.

Protests in Baghdad have continued into Monday, in an intensely volatile situation where overlapping aims are present, which includes not only a change in government but demands for the immediate withdrawal of US forces. 

Despite Friday's anti-American protests being impressive in size, with many pundits claiming anywhere from hundreds of thousands to over a million in the streets mainly in Baghdad, mainstream media in the West downplayed the numbers, with the Associated Press even falsely saying a mere "hundreds".

Added to the mix is the potential for US military retaliation against the "unruly" Shia militias - as one Iraqi leader called them - for the fresh attacks on the US embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone.