talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis demanded that Iran stop those attacks, according to Iraqi officials.

While visiting northeastern Syria last month, General McKenzie, the top American commander for the region, said military officials were developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, bolster radar sensors to identify approaching threats more rapidly, and find effective ways to down the aircraft.

In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some of the drones’ remnants have been partially recovered, and preliminary analyses indicated they were made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran, according to the three American officials familiar with the incidents.

These drones are larger than the commercially available quadcopters — small helicopters with four rotors — that the Islamic State used in the battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reapers, which have a 66-foot wingspan. Military analysts say they carry between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.

Iraqi officials and U.S. analysts say that while cash-strapped Iran has reduced funding for major Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting off smaller, more specialized proxies still operating within the larger militias but not under their direct command.

American officials say that these specialized units are likely to have been entrusted with the politically delicate mission of carrying out the new drone strikes.

Iraqi security commanders say groups with new names are fronts for the traditional, powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran has used the new groups to try to camouflage, in discussions with the Iraqi government, its responsibility for strikes targeting U.S. interests, which often end up killing Iraqis.

The Iraqi security official said members of the smaller, specialized groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and in Lebanon as well as in Iran by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversees proxy militias in the Middle East.

American and Iraqi officials and analysts trace the increased unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the U.S. killing of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.

“Because the Iranian control over its militias has fragmented after the killing of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the competition has increased among these groups,” said Mr. Malik, the Washington Institute analyst.

Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting.

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Iraqi Activism Fights for Survival Amid Murders and Threats

BAGHDAD — ‘Who killed me?’ the signs asked, alongside images of dead men and women, among the roughly 80 Iraqi activists murdered since late 2019. Young demonstrators held aloft the posters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, illustrating both the enduring spark and diminished strength of Iraq’s anti-government protest movement.

The demonstrators (publicly) and Iraqi officials (privately) say they know who killed many of the activists: Iran-backed militias that have essentially crushed a grass-roots anti-corruption movement that blames Iranian influence, and the militias, for many of Iraq’s ills. In a country where militias — nominally a part of the security apparatus — operate with impunity, the killers have gone unpunished.

The several thousand young men gathered in Baghdad’s central square Tuesday comprised the biggest protest in the Iraqi capital since the anniversary last October of demonstrations in 2019 that swept Baghdad and southern cities and brought down a government. The movement is driven by anger at the government’s failure to make promised reforms, including curbs on Iranian-backed militias.

But in the shadow of assassinations, kidnappings and intimidation of people who criticize the Iraqi government and Iranian interference, turnout on Tuesday was far smaller than organizers had hoped.

Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are clustered. A few of the protesters responded by throwing rocks as police chased demonstrators down alleys. Security forces said the demonstrators later set fire to security vehicles.

“We expected more people to come but some people are afraid — afraid for their jobs and afraid for themselves,” said one of the longtime activists, Dr. Mohammad Fadhil, a physician from Diyala province, speaking before the clashes erupted.

Another protester, Hani Mohammad, said he had been threatened by a group of fighters three days before.

“They came to my house,” said Mr. Mohammad, naming one of the biggest Iran-backed militias, which he did not want to name publicly for fear of retaliation. He said he had already fled.

A year after taking power, prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has largely failed to deliver reforms he promised in response to the 2019 protests, including reining in Iran-backed militias, which are also blamed for attacks on the U.S. embassy and military installations.

Activists who have been killed include protest leaders in the holy city of Karbala, a female doctor in Basra, and a prominent Baghdad security analyst, Hisham al Hashimi, who advised the prime minister. Many of them were shot dead in the streets in view of security cameras or the police, some in the middle of the day.

Though at least one commander has been relieved of duty, no one is known to have been prosecuted.

“What’s the main purpose of these killings? It’s to deter the formation of leadership among the protest movement,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “So you target key leaders that have the potential of rallying the masses, you eliminate them and then you create fear within the rest.”

She said there was little prospect that Iraqi political leaders would reform the system that elevated them to power, or push back against the pervasive influence of Iran, and that intimidation and lack of support had left the protest movement too weak to create change.

“You need leadership, you need organization, you need political machinery, you need funding for that,” said Ms. Slim, listing elements that the diverse movement lacks.

Ali al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said, “The security establishment is not serious in its efforts, beginning from the investigations within security institutions to bringing the case to the court.”

The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told the U.N. Security Council this month that many of the protest leaders were being hunted down with ‘rampant impunity’ ahead of the early elections they had demanded.

In addition to those assassinated, more than 560 protesters, the vast majority of them unarmed, have been killed by security forces and gunmen during the protests themselves since 2019. Most were shot with live bullets or killed by tear gas canisters that became lethal projectiles after being fired directly into the crowd.

Ahead of Tuesday’s protest, one of the main Iran-backed militias, the Hezbollah Brigades, issued what many perceived as a veiled threat to the demonstrators, saying that it and other paramilitary forces “must protect these young men who are deceived,” so they cannot be used by enemies, including the United States. It accused the protesters of aiming to delay the elections planned for Oct. 10.

The assassinations have had a chilling effect on the political campaign. The grass-roots movement that began in 2019 aimed to end the corruption-ridden system of government in place since 2003, where government ministries have been carved up between powerful political blocs and militias.

Activists originally saw the upcoming elections as a chance for a fresh start with new faces, but now they appear likely to return the same factions to power.

“There are no parties with integrity that I can vote for,” said Hadeel, a 19-year-old university student protesting Tuesday in Baghdad’s Nasour square. She did not want to give her last name.

“After the election we will not be able to even protest because the government is going to be stronger than before and the militias will have even more power.”

Despite the danger, the protests Thursday could be a harbinger of a painful summer in Iraq.

The protests in 2019 spread from the southern coastal city of Basra, where citizens took to the streets to demand public services. Iraq last year recorded life-threatening record high temperatures of over 125 degrees, leaving many to swelter without electricity or even clean water.

This summer, a lack of winter rain, water mismanagement and water conflicts with neighboring Turkey and Iran are expected to result in even worse shortages for millions of Iraqis, misery that could fuel renewed mass protests.

Among the protesters Tuesday, there was little fear of the coronavirus ravaging Iraq, where only about 1 percent of the population has been vaccinated. No one in the demonstrations was seen wearing masks, and social distancing in the crowded squares was impossible.

“We know virus exists,” said one of the protesters, Hamza Khadham. “But the violence, injustice and oppression by the government against the people is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

Falih Hassan, Awadh al-Taiee and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.

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Baghdad Hospital Fire Kills at Least 82, Many of Them Coronavirus Patients

BAGHDAD — A fire sparked by an exploding oxygen cylinder killed at least 82 people, most of them Covid-19 patients and their relatives, at a Baghdad hospital late Saturday, a devastating example of the pandemic’s impact on a country riddled with corruption and a legacy of decrepit infrastructure.

The hospital, a facility dedicated to Covid-19 patients in one of Baghdad’s poorer neighborhoods, had no smoke detectors, sprinkler system or fire hoses, said Maj. Gen. Khadhim Bohan, the head of Iraq’s civil defense forces. The fire spread quickly because of flammable material used in false ceilings in the intensive care ward, he added.

“If there had been smoke detectors, the situation would have been totally different,” General Bohan told the state-run Iraqiya TV.

Doctors and rescuers described a chaotic scene at the hospital, crowded with relatives of patients despite what was supposed to be a ban on most visitors to avoid the spread of infection. Because of a lack of nursing staff, Iraqi hospitals, even in Covid wards, require a relative to help look after a patient.

report early this year warned of the dangers of hospital fires because of increased oxygen use. It reported almost 70 people were killed in hospital fires around the world related to supplemental oxygen last year, including 10 in Romania. A more recent fire in April in Romania, where intensive care units have also been overwhelmed, killed three patients.

An Iraqi health ministry spokesman said the Ibn al-Khatib hospital, where the fire broke out, was originally built in the 1950s and had been renovated last year to refit it for treating Covid patients. He declined to comment on why the renovation did not include smoke detectors or a sprinkler system, saying that was now under investigation.

Among the dead were some older patients on ventilators who could not move from their beds when the fire started, officials said.

One Facebook notice listed five members of one family who died in the fire: a tribal sheikh being treated for Covid, his wife and their three sons.

“It was a horrible scene,” said Dr. Waad Adnan, a hospital resident who was in the physicians’ quarters next to the hospital when the fire started. “There was the sound of explosions and then huge balls of fire,” he added.

Dr. Adnan, who spoke outside the hospital, said he saw patients and their relatives breaking windows and throwing themselves from the second floor to escape the blaze.

He said the fire was believed to have started when an oxygen cylinder caught fire and then exploded.

“The hospital staff did their best to turn off the central oxygen, but the cylinders began exploding,” he said.

A neighborhood tuk-tuk driver, Ahmed Hassan, said he and other drivers rushed to the hospital to try to help a friend’s aunt who was being treated for Covid, but when they arrived, they found she had already died.

“I couldn’t see anything but heavy smoke and people running and shouting and charred bodies,” said Mr. Hassan, 19. “I heard screaming and saw smoke and people cursing the hospital staff for not helping the patients.”

He said he and other young men spent an hour running in and out of the hospital trying to rescue patients while the fire burned. Some were able to walk, while others, he said, he pulled from their beds.

“I found one of the people who was not able to move and I yelled, ‘This man is still alive, we can save him!’” he said. The older man clung to him and asked him not to leave him. He said, “‘Please, this is my phone. If I die tell my family I forgive them for everything.’”

The man died on Sunday.

Mr. Hassan said he helped rescue a nurse as well as other patients and their relatives. Iraq’s pharmaceutical association said at least one pharmacist died in the blaze.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi called the fire a crime and ordered an investigation within 24 hours into possible negligence at the hospital.

He ordered the detention for questioning of the health director for the Rasfah area of Baghdad, where the hospital is. The hospital’s director and its head of engineering and maintenance were also ordered detained.

President Barham Salih said the tragedy was a “result of the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement,” in a post on Twitter.

“Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent.”

Nermeen al-Mufti and Awadh al-Taiee contributed reporting.

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