The toll from clashes among rival protesters in Iraq’s southern hot spot of Nasiriyah rose to six dead, medics said Saturday, as other cities imposed security measures.
Violence erupted on Friday between the dwindling members of the October 2019 anti-government protest movement and supporters of populist Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, who had called on his followers to hit the streets in a show of force.
Four people were shot dead and dozens 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 said.
Medical sources said that the violence had left six people dead and wounded 51 others, nine of them by gunfire.
‘The security forces clearly failed to prevent armed gangs from storming Habboubi Square,’ wrote Asaad al-Naseri, an ex-Sadrist based Nasiriyah.
In the evening, clashes continued with an AFP correspondent reporting that many of the demonstrators’ tents had been set on fire while chaos reigned around the square.
Authorities meanwhile imposed an overnight curfew in Nasiriyah and sacked the city’s police chief.
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 Shiite 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 Baghdad, and in other Iraqi cities including Al-Hillah and Basra in the south.
In the capital’s Tahrir Square, they gathered shoulder-to-shoulder despite the novel coronavirus pandemic for the noon Muslim prayers and spilled out into the surrounding streets.
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