Iraq protesters defiant as they bury martyrs

Young Iraqi protesters pushed on withanti-government rallies across the country on Thursday as they buried sevenfellow activists killed overnight in violence blamed on supporters of powerful cleric Moqtada Sadr, reports BSS/AFP. Sadr — a militiaman-turned-politician with a cult-like following — hadbacked the rallies demanding the ouster of the entire political class whenthey erupted in October but has since then changed course.

In supporting ex-minister Mohammad Allawi as Iraq’s new premier, Sadrsplit with the rest of the popular movement, and his diehard followers haveturned on rival protesters. Late Wednesday, Sadrists raided a protest camp in Iraq’s shrine city ofNajaf where demonstrators had been chanting against Allawi.

Seven anti-government protesters were killed by bullets to the head orchest, medics in the city said, and dozens more were wounded. On Thursday morning, the dead were wrapped in white shrouds and carefullylaid in coffins draped with Iraqi flags, then carried in a funeral marchthrough the city.

Young Iraqis, sobbing, grasped at the coffins as they were carried past. Despite the bloodshed, Iraqis gathered for renewed rallies, with hundredsof students flooding Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. “Whether ten or 100 die, I won’t abandon this cause!” they chanted, as agirl stood silently nearby with a banner that read, “Our martyrs are ourcandidates”.

High school student Tayba walked into Tahrir alone, an Iraqi flag tiedaround her shoulders. “We’ve finally got used to it,” she said somberly, ofthe violence in Najaf.“In fact, we’re even more determined. Before, the students used to holdjust one demonstration a week, now there are three.”

‘Masks have fallen off’

Nearly 490 people have been killed and 30,000 wounded since October, mostof them demonstrators, according to a count compiled by AFP from security andmedical sources. The demonstrators have demanded a total overhaul of the ruling system andhave rejected Allawi — nominated on February 1 to replace Adel Abdel Mahdi,who stepped down in December — as too close to the political elite.

Sadr’s endorsement of Allawi prompted a sudden escalation in tensions withother demonstrators, which spilled over on Monday when an anti-governmentprotester was stabbed to death in Hilla, south of the capital. Sadr has ostensibly tried to calm the tensions in the days since, but forthose in Tahrir, the damage was done. “Did you see what happened in Najaf The masks have fallen off,” saidMohammad, a university student who has skipped class every day since Octoberto protest.

“We’ve even told the Sadrists here that they were supposed to secure thesquare and their guys are the ones doing this — but they don’t listen tous,” he told AFP. For demonstrators in Nasiriyah further south, the deaths in Najaf are onlythe latest episode of their bloodstained uprising.

“Demonstrators were shot dead, kidnapped, assassinated, and now theircamps are attacked in broad daylight under the watchful eye of the securityforces,” said Adnan Dafar, a protester. 

Allawi speaks

out  In Diwaniyah, protesters added Sadr to their chants denouncing the Hashedal-Shaabi, an Iraqi military network led by HadiAmeri which many have blamedfor violence against protesters.

“No Moqtada, No Hadi! My country will stay free!” they repeated. On Thursday, the United Nations’ top representative in Baghdad condemnedthe bloodshed in Najaf. “Protection of peaceful protesters should be guaranteed at all times, notwhen it is too late,” she said. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said officials in his country were“outraged” by the violence in Najaf.

“It is unconscionable that the perpetrators continue to act withimpunity,” Pompeo said, urging the Iraqi government “to take immediate stepsto hold accountable the militias, thugs, and vigilante groups in Najaf andother cities for their attacks against Iraqis exercising their right topeaceful protest”.

Allawi made a televised statement on Thursday afternoon calling thesituation “not acceptable at all”. “The next government’s priority will be serious investigations into theviolations against protesters and security forces and holding whoever wasbehind them responsible, whoever they may be,” he said.

Allawi even hinted at a possible resignation, saying such attacks wouldmake it “impossible to continue with the task assigned to me.” When he announced his candidacy, Allawi had extended a hand to protestersand urged them to keep up their rallies.

He has since met with representatives of the movement, pledging to releaseanyone detained for demonstrating, compensate the families of those killed inprotest-related violence and work with the UN to implement demonstrators’demands.

Allawi also pledged to include demonstrators as he seeks to form hiscabinet, which he must do by March 2. Until it is confirmed by parliament with a vote of confidence, Allawiremains PM-designate.