Tensions in Iraq rose Friday night after gunmen suspected by protesters to be linked with Iran-backed militias fired on demonstrators throughout Baghdad’s protest hotspots.
The Associated Press quoted unnamed Iraqi officials who said 25 protesters were killed and over 130 wounded, after a bloody night of attacks by the unknown gunmen.
The attack was among the deadliest since Oct. 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 epicenter of the popular uprising.
The attack was the first time gunmen that appeared to be not linked with Iraqi security forces opened fire on the protesters.
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.
Iraqi security forces were deployed to streets leading to the square by the early morning.
Meanwhile, AFP reported that the United States on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders over a deadly crackdown on protests in the country, as it warned Tehran to stay out of its neighbor's affairs.
The move comes as President Donald Trump's administration, which considers Iran an arch-enemy, voices alarm at rising attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq blamed on armed Shiite groups backed by Tehran.
"The Iraqi people want their country back. They are calling for genuine reform and accountability and for trustworthy leaders who will put Iraq's national interests first," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
He announced sanctions on three Iraqis -- Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, and Hussein Falil Aziz al-Lami -- who are part of the Shiite paramilitary force Hashed al-Shaabi.
They were designated under a law that will seize any assets they have in the United States and ban them from visiting.
The United States -- which invaded Iraq in 2003 in a controversial war of regime change that led to chaos in the country -- has increasingly accused Iran of interference in its neighbor.
Some 430 people have died across Iraq as security forces and paramilitaries cracked down on two months of protests triggered by concerns over unemployment and corruption.
On Friday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani with strong influence over the majority sect in the country indirectly called for Iran not to meddle in Iraqi politics, after the prime minister resigned recently and parliament is set to choose a new government.
Before al-Sistani’s call, General Qasem Soleimani -- the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Qods Force -- traveled to Baghdad in a show of influence.
David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, said that the Iranian commander's presence in Baghdad was "not normal."
"It is unorthodox and it is incredibly problematic and it is a huge violation of Iraqi sovereignty," Schenker told reporters.
"We are encouraging neighbors not to meddle and undermine the constitution of the country," he said.
Schenker did not rule out imposing sanctions on more Iraqis including government officials.
The United States also says Iran has moved missiles into Iraq and has pointed the finger at Tehran over a rising number of sophisticated but non-lethal rocket attacks on U.S. bases.
In the latest incident, two rockets hit Al-Balad air base, north of Baghdad, late Thursday, US officials said.
"We're waiting for full evidence, but if past is prologue, then there's a good chance that Iran was behind it," Schenker said.