Four dead, tents ablaze after Iraq cleric pulls protest support

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq cracked down on anti-government protesters who have been occupying key public squares for months, leaving four demonstrators dead last Saturday in a country reeling from political turmoil and violence.

Security forces set fire to protesters’ tents in southern Iraq and reopened public areas in Baghdad just hours after a powerful cleric dealt a major blow to the movement by withdrawing his support, prompting his followers to leave the encampments.

Security forces fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse protesters in an operation to clear two squares in Baghdad, killing one and wounding 44, medical and security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations.

In response, protesters called for more people to take to the streets.

Three protesters were shot dead in the southern city of Nasiriyah after a day of altercations between protesters and security forces on a highway connecting the province to oil-rich Basra in the south.

Anti-government protesters run during clashes with security forces in Baghdad. PHOTO: AP

Activists said the presence of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers and his militia group had shielded the protesters. With that cover gone, many in the four-month-old movement feared the worst.

Al-Sadr withdrew support after tens of thousands of his followers staged a separate anti-United States (US) rally last Friday in a nearby Baghdad neighbourhood, which most anti-government demonstrators did not attend.

A spokesperson for the cleric said the protesters insulted those participating in the anti-US rally and even obstructed access to the one in southern Iraq.

The succession of events come during a political clash over naming the next prime minister, and they sent a clear message to elites: Iraq’s streets were al-Sadr’s domain.

“He is reclaiming the mantle of populist leader with a popular base able to mobilise large crowds,” said Senior Research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore Fanar Haddad. In Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-government protest movement in Baghdad, protesters said they were fearful of what would come next.

“We are all alone now,” said Mustafa, 24, who asked that his full name not be used because he feared reprisals.

The demonstrations have been critical of government corruption, high unemployment and Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Crackdowns by security forces have killed at least 500 protesters since October 1.

Iraq also has been roiled by US-Iran tensions that reached fever pitch when an American drone strike this month killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad’s airport.

Al-Sadr said he thought the protesters he broke with were “supporters of me and of Iraq”.

“I am expressing my disappointment and my regret toward all those who doubted me among the Tahrir Square protesters,” he said in a tweet last Friday evening.

But spokesperson Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi said al-Sadr’s followers “will be neutral, not with them or against them”.

The unrest after al-Sadr’s followers packed up their tents and the calm of his anti-US rally underscored the cleric’s ability to manipulate the street during a critical time in Iraqi politics, analysts said.

Political blocs have yet to agree on a consensus candidate to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in December amid pressure from protests.

“For him, it’s about political capital and relevance,” said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of the Bayan Centre, a Baghdad-based think tank.

Al-Sadr, who’s Sairoon party won the largest number of seats in the May 2018 federal election, has rejected every proposed candidate put forward by rival bloc Fatah. His show of force on the street is one way to ensure the next premier brings a pro-Sadrist agenda to government, analysts said.