Three dead as rival protesters clash in southern Iraq

Three dead as rival protesters clash in southern Iraq
Three people were shot dead and dozens wounded in southern Iraq, according to medics
4 min read
27 November, 2020
Three Iraqis were killed during protests [Getty]

Three people was shot dead and nearly 50 wounded in Iraq's south on Friday, medics said, in clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr.

The violence erupted as tens of thousands of Sadr supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah in a show of force as preparations ramp up for June parliamentary elections.

Their turnout overshadowed the rival youth-dominated movement that had erupted in October 2019 but had petered out in recent months due to geopolitical tensions and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi has called for early polls to take place in June 2021 -- nearly a year ahead of schedule -- to fulfil a key demand of last year's protest movement, which also included Sadrists.

On Friday, followers of the cleric attacked a tent camp of anti-government protesters in Nasiriyah's Habboubi Square, said Mohammad al-Khayyat, a leader of the anti-government movement.

"Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence could take place," Khayyat told AFP.

Medical sources in the city told AFP that nine of the wounded had suffered bullet wounds.

An AFP reporter saw the torched remnants of the anti-government camp in Habboubi, where chaos reigned.

"The security forces clearly failed to prevent armed gangs from storming Habboubi Square," wrote Asaad al-Naseri, an ex-Sadrist based Nasiriyah.

Show of force in Baghdad

Nasiriyah was a major hub for the anti-government protest movement that erupted in October 2019.

It was also the site of one of the bloodiest incidents of the uprising nearly one year ago on November 28, when more than three dozen died in protest-related violence.

The deaths sparked outrage across Iraq, including by the country's top Shia authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and prompted the resignation of then prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Kadhemi's plan to hold early elections is seen as an effort to reach out to protesters.

The polls will take place under a new electoral law agreed by parliament that will see district sizes reduced and votes for individual candidates replacing list-based ballots.

Most observers expect a delay of at least a few months while political parties prepare their campaigns, but experts say the new system is likely to benefit Sadr and his candidates.

Sadrists had already won big in the May 2018 vote with 54 of parliament's 329 seats, granting him the biggest single bloc.

In a tweet this week, Sadr said he expected major wins in the new elections and would push for the next prime minister to be a member of his movement for the first time.

He also called for a protest on Friday, prompting tens of thousands to turn out in the Iraqi capital and in smaller numbers in other cities.

Despite the novel coronavirus pandemic, they gathered shoulder-to-shoulder for noon Muslim prayers in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, spilling out into the surrounding streets.

'We call the shots'

In a sermon read out by the cleric's representative, the firebrand leader called for a "Sadrist majority" in parliament.

Sadr is very rarely seen in public and did not attend the rally.

"This is a protest against the corrupt, the oppressors, who have driven Iraq to brink of bankruptcy, to the brink of the abyss," said Talal al-Saadi, a cleric who was among those protesting on Friday.

Iraq is facing its most dire fiscal crisis in decades following a collapse in oil prices earlier this year and the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the government unable to pay public sector salaries on time.

On Friday, Sadr supporters carried Iraq's national tricolour and posters of the cleric, including some that evoked his past as a militia leader and showed him in camouflage.

Volunteers dressed in light blue -- the movement's colour -- sprayed the crowd with disinfectant.

"Obeying Sadr's call, we're making a stand that the whole world will see -- we don't want criminals or corrupt people in Iraq," said protester Ahmad Rahim, with an Iraqi flag draped around his shoulders.

"We call the shots," he added.

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