Thousands take to Nasiriyah streets as anger simmers

A protester died on Monday, bringing the toll from the day of violence to eight dead and several dozen wounded.
Tuesday 01/12/2020
Anti-government protesters clash with supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Nassiriya, Iraq November 27, 2020. (REUTERS)
Anti-government protesters clash with supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Nassiriya, Iraq November 27, 2020. (REUTERS)

NASIRIYAH, IRAQ –Thousands flooded Iraq’s southern hotspot of Nasiriyah on Monday as a resident died from wounds sustained in clashes last week between anti-government protesters and supporters of a controversial cleric.

Ridha al-Rikaby was hit in the head by a bullet on Friday when followers of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr clashed with young demonstrators in Nasiriyah’s Habboubi Square, medics said.

He died on Monday, bringing the toll from the day of violence to eight dead and several dozen wounded.

After last week’s clashes, authorities imposed a lockdown to try to stop further rallies in the southern city, sacked the provincial police chief and launched an investigation into the events.

Simmering anger

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi dispatched National Security Advisor Qassem al-Araji and other senior officials to Nasiriyah on Monday for talks with protesters.

But anger simmered in Nasiriyah, with thousands turning out for a funeral march.

“Once again, peaceful protesters are dying under the government’s nose, and the security forces can’t hold the killers accountable,” one of those taking part said.

Nasiriyah was a major hub for the protest movement that erupted in October 2019 against a government seen by demonstrators as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighbouring Iran.

Nearly 600 people died across Iraq in protest-related violence during those rallies but there has been virtually no accountability for their deaths.

Last week’s violence coincided with the one-year anniversary of one of the bloodiest incidents of the 2019 uprising, when more than three dozen people died at Nasiriyah’s Zeitun (Olive) Bridge on November 28.

The deaths sparked outrage across Iraq and prompted the resignation of then-premier Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Kadhimi succeeded him and has sought to reach out to protesters by setting June 2021 as a date for early elections.

Preparing for polls

The polls will take place under a new 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, with Sadr and his candidates projected to make major wins.

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

In a tweet on Monday, Sadr urged Iraqis to “get ready” for next year’s polls, describing the elections as a “major gateway” to implement anti-corruption reforms.

“We installed Kadhimi for you and changed the electoral law,” Sadr said, alluding that his popularity in the street had helped bring Kadhimi to power.

“You will achieve the rest of your demands at the ballot box,” said Sadr, who last week tweeted that he would push for the next premier to be a member of his movement for the first time.