Iraqi anti-government protests heat up in Najaf
LONDON - Clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of powerful Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resulted in the death of at least eight people in the southern shrine city of Najaf.
The fatalities were reported after al-Sadr supporters raided a protest camp February 5. Reports said the attackers threw petrol bombs at tents and fired on protesters.
Al-Sadr’s supporters had been part of protests calling for an overhaul of Iraq’s political system before al-Sadr reached an agreement with pro-Iran parties to back the candidacy of Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi, who was tasked with forming a new government February 1.
The protesters remain united in opposition to Allawi, who served as minister of communications in previous Iraqi governments.
Al-Sadr emerged as a new target of the protesters’ ire following his backing of Allawi’s candidacy and moves by his supporters to break up the Najaf protests.
“I used to support the Sadrist movement but the minute he did this, I stopped. I’ve erased all my Facebook posts that support him,” Najaf protester Abdul Zahra told Reuters.
Following the violence February 5, protesters in Najaf pledged to rebuild their protest camp, which was a focal point in the protests. Rallies took place across Iraq in support of the Najaf protesters.
“Whether ten or 100 die, I won’t abandon the cause,” protesters chanted in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
In his Friday sermon, Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani criticised security forces for failing to protect protesters.
“There is no justification for them to stop fulfilling their duties in this regard or for anyone to stop them from doing so,” Sistani said in a sermon read out by representatives.
“They must bear responsibility for maintaining security and stability, protecting peaceful protesters and their gathering places, revealing the identities of aggressors and infiltrators and protecting the interests of citizens from the attacks of saboteurs.”
Allawi also condemned the violence and called on the outgoing cabinet to protect protesters.
“The painful events that are taking place now prompt me to ask the brothers in the current government to carry out their duties and protect the demonstrators until a government that meets all the aspirations of the Iraqi people… can be formed,” Allawi posted on Twitter.
Allawi has reportedly contacted protesters’ representatives, seeking an end to the nation-wide demonstrations.
“Mohammed Allawi has had a string of meetings with several dozen representatives of protesters from the eight provinces taking part in the uprising,” Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi security expert who attended the meetings, told Agence France-Presse.
Hashemi said Allawi offered to release anyone detained for protesting, compensate families of those killed in protest-related violence and work with the United Kingdom to implement the protesters’ demands regarding anti-corruption measures.
Allawi reportedly offered to consult with the protesters over the formation of his cabinet, including granting protesters a say in up to five ministerial nominations and directly appointing two activists as ministers. He has until March 2 to form a new government.
Figures from security and medical sources indicate that nearly 500 people have been killed and 30,000 wounded since the start of demonstrations in October. The protests led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.