Iraqi security forces used live ammunition against mostly unarmed demonstrators Thursday, killing at least 40 people in one of the bloodiest days since anti-government protests began last month, security and medical officials said.
At least 25 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when security forces opened fire on protesters who had blocked key roads and bridges in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Baghdad said it had sent military troops to restore order across southern Iraq, where protests have grown increasingly violent. Demonstrators have occupied buildings and bridges and have clashed with security forces, who have used tear gas and live ammunition almost daily since protests began.
'A war zone'
Amnesty International denounced the violence in Nasiriyah, calling it a bloodbath.
"The scenes from Nasiriyah this morning more closely resemble a war zone than city streets and bridges. This brutal onslaught is just the latest in a long series of deadly events where Iraqi security forces meted out appalling violence against largely peaceful protesters,'' said Lynn Maalouf, the group's Middle East research director.
Al Jazeera reported that Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi fired Lieutenant-General Jamil al-Shammari less than a day after he was put in charge of bringing order to Dhi Qar, of which Nasiriyah is the capital. Local media also reported late Thursday that the governor of Dhi Qar had resigned.
In Baghdad, security forces shot and killed four people and wounded at least another 22 as protesters tried to cross the Ahrar Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of Iraq's government.
Attack on Iranian consulate
The clashes came a day after protesters burned down an Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf. The staff at the consulate were unharmed because they had evacuated just before the attack, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported Thursday. Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called for a "responsible, strong and effective'' response to the attack.
This was the second time protesters had attacked an Iranian diplomatic mission. Earlier this month, protesters threw Molotov cocktails over the consulate walls in Karbala, but the fire did not catch.
The demonstrators are demanding an end to government corruption and what they perceive as increasing Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.
More than 350 people have been killed and thousands more wounded since October.