Officials raise the death toll to 25 protesters killed and over 130 wounded while an armed drone hit the home of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr in Najaf city, sources say.

A protester holds a blood-stained flag at the site of a gunmen attack in Baghdad, Iraq, December 7, 2019.
A protester holds a blood-stained flag at the site of a gunmen attack in Baghdad, Iraq, December 7, 2019. (AP)

Iraqi officials raised on Saturday the death toll to 25 protesters killed and over 130 wounded, after a bloody night of attacks by unknown gunmen that targeted anti-government demonstrators in the capital city.

The health and security officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The attack on Friday 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.

The 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. Protesters said the electricity in the square was cut, creating chaos as they ran from the bullets and took cover in nearby mosques and streets.

The attack led to the burning of a car park that demonstrators had converted into a base for their sit-in while surrounding buildings in the square were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Drone hits Sadr home

An armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr on Saturday, hours after his supporters deployed in Baghdad in response to the attack on protesters.

Sadr has backed the protests, but demonstrators have been wary of his support as they feared it could pave the way for confrontations with pro-government forces.

The drone dropped a bomb on his home in the shrine city of Najaf, damaging the exterior wall, sources within his party told AFP.

Sadr, a notoriously versatile figure, is currently in Iran.

In Baghdad, trucks of armed men briefly blocked a main road near Tahrir early on Saturday, firing their weapons and shouting, witnesses said.

Army units then deployed on the street.

Further south in Nasiriyah, the usual rallies swelled with crowds upset over the previous night's developments, an AFP correspondent said.

"We are coming in solidarity with Baghdad," one said.

In Diwaniyah, another protest hotspot, thousands turned out early on Saturday but security forces, too, spread across the streets in larger numbers.

And preparations were underway in Najaf, where most of the country's Shiite Muslims are buried, for the funerals of those killed late Friday.

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.

A string of mysterious knife attacks against anti-government protesters also occurred on Thursday in the square, after supporters of the Iran-backed militias attempted their own rival demonstration before withdrawing.

US sanctions

Friday's deadly attacks came hours after Washington slapped sanctions on the head of Asaib al Haq, a powerful Iran-backed militia accused of being behind deadly sniping attacks on protesters. The US Treasury sanctioned leader Qais al Khazali, his brother Laith al Khazali, who is a commander in the group, and Husain Falih Aziz al Lami.

Iraqi security forces were deployed to streets leading to the square by the early morning.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies