ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — At least seven people died and more than 60 were wounded on Friday and Saturday during clashes between protesters and supporters of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Protesters in the city’s Habboubi Square were reportedly forced out of their tents and shot at by Sadr supporters, leaving at least seven people dead and scores wounded in a city which has significant bloodshed since demonstrations began last October.
“Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence could take place,” Mohammad al-Khayyat, a leader of the anti-government movement told AFP.
On November 28 last year, more than three dozen people died in protest-related violence at Nasiriyah’s Zeitun Bridge.
Iraqi counter-terror services were sent to the city on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to rescue a kidnapped activist in September.
Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters took to the streets of Baghdad and Nasiriyah at the weekend to express their support for the Shiite cleric – also head of the Sairoon Coalition, the largest parliamentary bloc – ahead of next year’s elections.
Sadr called on his supporters last week to gather at Baghdad’s Tahrir square – the epicenter of Iraq’s protest movement – to perform Friday prayers, hoping that this would clean up the “atheism” that he said has taken over the city’s streets.
“After Tahrir Square became a place for infidelity and disobedience of God… it is our duty as believers to raise the name of God in the square,” Sadr wrote on Monday.
He then took to Twitter on Friday to thank his supporters for mobilizing.
“Today, you gave me hope that the upcoming elections are in good hands, and Iraq will be taken out of the hands of corrupt people from outside and inside Iraq,” Sadr tweeted.
However, the cleric later called for an end to violence, asking the people of Nasiriyah to “not fight among themselves.”
“The people need to come together for the upcoming democratic process for their rights to not be taken away from them,” he added.
The cleric previously threatened a “million person march” back in February, amid delays appointing a government cabinet.
Eleven people died and more than 200 were injured after Sadr supporters stormed a Najaf protest camp in February.
The prime minister’s office on Sunday announced the formation of a body led by National Security Advisor Qassim Al-Araji to “restore stability” in Dhi Qar province.
The US Embassy in Baghdad also expressed concern regarding the “unjustifiable” violence.
“The United States condemns the violence against peaceful protestors that took place in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar today. These unjustifiable acts of violence have no place in a democracy,” the embassy said on Saturday.
“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,” it added.