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Iraq: Sadrists' deadly violence prompts fears for upcoming elections

The government's failure to confront violent militias is stoking fears of delaying parliamentary elections, a major demand of the 2019 uprising
A demonstrator sits down on the rubble of a destroyed protest encampment in Nasiriyah's Haboubi square, Iraq on 28 November 2020 (MEE/Asaad Mohammed)
By Azhar Al-Rubaie in Nasiriyah, Iraq

Hopes for peaceful preparations ahead of parliamentary elections in Iraq next year were dealt a worrying blow over the weekend as supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr confronted anti-government protesters, with deadly results.

Tens of thousands of the influential Shia cleric's supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah over the weekend in a show of force as preparations ramp up for June parliamentary elections.

Nasiriyah was a hub for the 2019 anti-government protests and was also the site of one of the bloodiest incidents of the uprising last November, when more than three dozen people died in protest-related violence, prompting the government to resign.

'Some parties want to benefit from the chaos to advance their interests in the next elections' 

- Abbas al-Jubouri, Iraqi political analyst

On Friday, witnesses told Middle East Eye that Sadr followers broke into Nasiriyah’s Haboubi square and torched protesters’ tents, assaulting them with live ammunition, batons and knives while chasing unarmed protesters in side streets.

The violence led to the death of five by gunfire, while 77 have been wounded, including five members of the police, medical sources told MEE.

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“The clash took place because protesters refused to allow Sadrists to perform the Friday prayers in Haboubi Square. Sadrists performed the prayer away from the square, but then they came back with arms,” Nasiriyah based journalist Yousif al-Hashimi told MEE.

“What Sadrists want is what their leader wants, and no one knows what Muqtada al-Sadr wants,” he said. 

A view of the Haboubi square in Nasiriyah a day after torching protesters' tents by armed Sadr supporters, 28 November 2020 (MEE/Asaad Mohammed)
A view of Haboubi square in Nasiriyah a day after torching protesters' tents by armed Sadr supporters, on 28 November 2020 (MEE/Asaad Mohammed)

The May 2018 elections had given Sadr’s supporters the biggest single bloc in parliament, with 54 out of 329 seats, but they are now seeking a majority.

Earlier on Friday, thousands of Sadrists gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah carrying Sadr’s pictures in a show of support to the Shia leader ahead of the election. 

“Today, you gave me hope that the next elections are in good hands and Iraq will be taken out of the hands of corrupt people from outside and inside [Iraq],” the leader now based in the Iranian city of Qom, said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sacked the Nasiriyah police chief on Sunday in a bid to calm the unrest. He also ordered the formation of a crisis-management team to “protect peaceful protesters, government buildings and private properties in order to cut the road for those who want to stir up sedition," according to a government statement.

'What Sadrists want is what their leader wants, and no one knows what Muqtada al-Sadr wants'

-Yousif al-Hashimi, Iraqi journalist 

Meanwhile, EU and US officials have urged calm and called for accountability for those responsible for the violence.

“New attacks against protesters recall last year’s attempts by armed elements to smother emerging political voices on the streets of Iraq,” the EU Ambassador to Iraq Martin Huth wrote on Twitter.

“As Iraq prepares for elections, it should be stressed: freedom of expression is not reserved to any one party, but equally held by all Iraqis.”

The US has also denounced the attacks. 

“The United States joins the international community in calling for those responsible to be held accountable, and for the government to provide protection for protestors and others engaged in the legitimate exercise of free speech,” a statement by the US embassy in Baghdad said.

Anti-government uprising

Nationwide protests erupted in Iraq in October 2019 demanding economic and political reforms as well as early elections. Nasiriyah was among the main hubs of the uprising. 

In March 2020, the protests were suspended for fear of spreading the coronavirus pandemic. 

The protests led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was succeeded by Kadhimi.

Since 2019, more than 550 protesters have been killed and tens of thousands wounded as security forces and armed groups used lethal force against them in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and other southern provinces, including Nasiriyah.

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Initially, Sadr had declared himself a supporter of the protests and the demands for early elections, but he later rescinded his backing in the midst of accusations by protesters that he is part of the corrupt elite.

Sadr’s hardcore followers, partly provoked by anti-Sadr slogans from demonstrators and conflicting messages from the cleric, have repeatedly attacked protest camps across Iraq over the last year.

Both the US and Iraqi activists have frequently blamed Iran and its proxies in the country for the crackdown on demonstrators.

Though Sadr had previously positioned himself as opposed to Tehran’s influence in Iraq, many have accused him of pivoting to the Islamic Republic since the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes by the US in early January.

“There are many political blocs that have lost their supporters in the street and want to stir up strife to stop reforms and change the country into a better place,” Abbas al-Jubouri, a political analyst from Baghdad, said.

“Iraq is going from bad to worse,” he told Middle East Eye. “There are no real long-term strategies to run the state. We have a collapsed economy and politicians are unable to manage the country. Therefore, I think the next elections will not be held on its scheduled date in 2021, but rather in 2022.”

Iraq protesters
Demonstrators removing the debris of their torched tents in Nasiriyah's Haboubi square, on 28 November 2020 (MEE/Asaad Mohammed)

According to Hashimi, Prime Minister Kadhimi is not willing to confront the militias, and the people of Nasiriyah have lost their trust in security services due to their failure of preventing massacres and the kidnapping of activists. 

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“People in Nasiriyah have no trust in the security forces to rule the city and contain armed gangs whether they were Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Sadrists or whoever,” he said.

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

“What happened in Nasiriyah was very painful… Some parties want to benefit from the chaos to advance their interests in the next elections,” Jubouri, the political analyst, said.

 “Kadhimi is facing many obstacles and many political opponents stand against him, and this seems to be complicating his mission to deal with the country’s pressing problems.” 

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