ERBIL, Kurdistan Region— Members of the Peace Brigades (Saraya al Salam in Arabic) militia, followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have been deployed in droves to several Iraqi cities after receiving information about “threats” to holy sites, according to advisors to Sadr.
A statement circulated by Telegram channels affiliated with the Peace Brigades stated that “Abu Yasser,” the “jihadist aide” to Sadr, held an urgent meeting on Monday in which he declared “complete readiness” to defend holy sites, following a tweet from Sadr’s spokesperson, Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi, about a possible threat to holy sites in Iraq.
“We have received almost certain information that there is an agreement with Baathists, ISIS [Islamic State], and infiltrators to attack some holy sites in Najaf, Holy Karbala and the capital, Baghdad,” Iraqi tweeted.
The claim follows protests in Najaf on Friday, where activists chanted “Muqtada is the enemy of Allah” – prompting Iraqi to threaten action against demonstrators.
“These slogans were issued by a group of Baathists and Daesh [ISIS] members, or people imitating the West and loving the Zionist enemy,” Iraqi said, adding “We will act in other social and legal ways, and we will make those people an example for all.”
Saraya al-Salam militia forces were deployed in the streets of Baghdad, as well as the provinces of Karbala and Najaf, according to footage shared to Telegram. Videos on Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al Shaabi in Arabic) Telegram channels showed masked and armed men setting up security checkpoints to search cars in the capital.
“We will not give up on state building and its prestige…building is not done by encroaching on religious and national symbols, striking institutions, and blocking roads, but with state support,” Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi tweeted on Monday evening.
“We will not tolerate transgressors,” he added.
The militias are accused of various human rights violations against protesters.
Militia forces affiliated with Sadr raided a number of activists’ houses in Najaf province on Saturday night, activists told Rudaw English.
This came a day after a ceremony was held by activists in Najaf, to mark the one year anniversary of a massacre in Najaf’s Sadrayn square where Sadr supporters stormed an anti-government protest camp.
Twenty-three people were killed and more than 182 wounded, according to AFP.
Sadr has been a vocal supporter of reform and anti-corruption campaigns for years. When anti-government protests broke out in October 2019, he sent members the Peace Brigades to protect the demonstrators. But Sadr changed his position and by February 2020, his militias were involved in suppression of the protests.
Activist Raed al-Daami was kidnapped in Karbala on Saturday by what he believes was a Sadr-aligned militia.
A video clip published to social media showed two men forcing Daami into a car before driving him to an unknown destination.
“I was taken to an abandoned place while I was blindfolded, and I was investigated about the reasons for my participation in the annual anniversary organized by the Najaf activists in the Writers Union two days ago. This indicates that the kidnapping party is affiliated with the Sadrist movement,” Daami told Rudaw English.
Daami said that he was tortured for more than three hours and was threatened not to participate in any further demonstrations.
Killing and kidnappings are taking place elsewhere in Iraq. Ali Imad, an activist in Nasriyiah, survived an assassination attempt at dawn on Monday, when he was shot four times. Demonstrations were revived in response, activists told Rudaw English.
Videos that went viral on social media on Monday showed protesters in Nasiriyah blocking main roads in the city with burning tires to denounce the assassination attempts against activist Imad, threatening to escalate their protests if the local government and security forces do not provide adequate protection for activists.
“We will keep escalating unless the government and security forces provide protection for the demonstrators and activists in Nasiriyah.” Muhammad Yasir, an activist from the city told Rudaw English on Monday.
In November 2020, protesters in the city’s Habboubi Square were forced out of their tents and shot at by Sadr supporters, leaving at least seven people dead and scores wounded. Protesters moved back into the square a week later and vowed to continue protesting.