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Iraqi state forces, militia man checkpoints after bloodshed

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces on Sunday set up checkpoints and manned them alongside unarmed members of a militia group, Iraqi police officials said, to protect anti-government protesters in central Baghdad plazas, two days after a deadly attack by unknown gunmen.

The militia group, Saraya Salam or Peace Brigades, are linked to influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and have been present in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Iraq’s protest movement, where they have offered protection for hundreds of peaceful demonstrators. In the plaza they are known as the “blue hats” by protesters and are unarmed.

At least 25 people, including protesters and police, were killed and 130 wounded Friday and early Saturday when armed men in pickup trucks stormed Khilani Square, which is adjacent to Tahrir, and shot live ammunition at demonstrators.

It was one of the bloodiest days of the leaderless uprising that engulfed Iraq on Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations.

But Friday’s attack was different because the perpetrators are unknown. It marked a major escalation in a string of mysterious assaults targeting peaceful demonstrators. Protesters largely blame Iran-backed militia groups for carrying out the attacks and decried inaction on the part of state security forces.

The attack prompted calls in a joint statement from the embassies of the U.K., France and Germany to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to provide state protection of the protesters, while taking measures to ensure that militia groups stay away from demonstrations.

Ambassadors from the three countries called for a recent decision by the government to keep armed groups away from protest sites to be upheld and “to hold accountable those who violate this order.”

Falah Fayadh, chairman of the paramilitary PMUs, the program that oversees an array of Shiite militia groups, directed PMU forces to keep clear of squares occupied by protesters, according to an internal statement issued Saturday and seen by The Associated Press. Those who disobeyed the order would be fired, Fayadh said in the statement.

Saraya Salam militiamen had blocked roads leading to Tahrir Square to prevent gunmen from entering during Friday’s hostilities.

In response to the escalation in violence, several checkpoints leading to Tahrir were established Sunday and jointly manned by security forces and Saraya Salam, Iraqi police officials said. Saraya Salam members conducted body checks of passersby.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Demonstrators feared the attacks would be followed by armed street fighting between their de-facto protectors, Saraya Salam, and Iran-backed militia groups whom they suspect carried out the attacks.

Al-Sadr is also the leader of the Sairoon bloc, which holds the largest number of seats in Iraq’s Parliament.