Baghdad, Iraq – Hundreds of people in southern Iraqi cities of Nasiriya and Najaf have taken to the streets to bury their dead and demand justice a day after at least 52 protesters were shot dead by security forces in the country’s south in what was described as the “bloodiest day” in the weeks-long anti-government demonstrations.
At least 34 protesters were killed in Nasiriya city while another 18 people lost their lives in Shia holy city of Najaf, where an Iranian consulate was torched a day earlier by angry protesters.
While the situation remained relatively calm in Najaf on Friday with families mourning and burying their dead, clashes between protesters and security forces resumed in Nasiriya, sources and witnesses told Al Jazeera.
AFP news agency reported that a protester in Nasiriya was killed in clashes on Friday, taking the death toll to more than 400 – confirmed by both Reuters News Agency and AFP – since the protests erupted in early October.
Medical sources and witnesses told Al Jazeera that at least 500 people have been wounded in the crackdown on protesters in the mainly Shia south.
‘Doors of hellfire’
The bloody violence left families in Nasiriya reeling from shock as they took part in funeral processions at the Sadrayn Square in the city centre, before placing their dead to rest at a nearby graveyard.
Adil al-Badri, whose 32-year-old cousin, Hussein, was killed in the violent crackdown, told Al Jazeera that his family was mourning the death of a fighter who had participated in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.
“He was one of our bravest men and now we’ve lost him. Our hearts are broken,” Badri told Al Jazeera, adding that the victim was expecting his first child in a couple of months.
According to Badri, his cousin was standing by when a gunshot ripped through his back, killing him on the spot.
“When the forces arrived, they didn’t give anyone a chance to flee.
“Whether or not they were shooting to kill, the streets were teeming with protesters and passersby. People were bound to get killed even if they weren’t protesting,” said Badri.
He recounted that although Hussein’s friends “took him to the hospital, he’d already died. His sick mother never got to say goodbye,” he told Al Jazeera.
He warned that the incidents have elicited a strong reaction from the victims’ families, especially with many belonging to strong southern tribes.
“The doors of hellfire have just opened. After this genocide, the country is moving towards its worst days.
“Our tribes won’t stay quiet. They’ve already taken to the streets to seek justice for their themselves,” he added.
The heads of at least 18 influential tribes in Nasiriya signed a list of 11 demands which they put forward to the government on Friday, threatening to launch a stir if their demands were not immediately met.
“We aren’t calling for calm or asking the government to sit down and negotiate after this genocide,” said Shaykh Uday al-Shirshab, the leader of the Shirshab tribe which signed the document seen by Al Jazeera.
“We refuse to sit around the same table as the government. If they don’t do step down, we’ll seek justice for the death of our children using our own weapons,” he warned.
In a televised statement on Friday, the group of tribes read out their demands which included the immediate dissolution of the parliament and the establishment of a transitional government until new elections are held.
“I am worried for the future of Nasiriya and the whole of Iraq. Those who are responsible for killing our children must be held accountable,” he added, explaining that three members of the Shirshab tribe were killed during Thursday’s incidents.
“This unjustifiable use of force shows that the perpetrators can’t be real Iraqis. Whether they are Iran-backed militias or other, they’ll pay for what they did,” he told Al Jazeera.
Addressing worshippers at Friday prayer in the holy city of Karbala, a representative of Iraq’s top Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the use of lethal force against protesters and urged demonstrators to reject acts of violence.
“Attacks against peaceful protesters are forbidden,” said Ahmed al-Safi, adding that protesters “must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people … and peaceful demonstrators should coordinate to eject vandals.”
But people at Tahrir Square in the capital Baghdad were displeased with the sermon saying they expected more from the religious authority, after what they described as a “genocide in the south”.
“We’ve lost faith in the marj’iya [the Shia religious authority]. Those in power are a bunch of cronies and thieves,” 35-year-old Ban, a protester in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, told Al Jazeera.
“We want the Shia authority to take a stance and admit to that instead of sitting on the fence and making these wishy-washy statements,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Judicial Council in Iraq announced the formation of a “three-member investigative body to investigate the killing of protesters over the past two days,” spokesperson for the Council Abdel Sattar Bayrakdar said in a statement.
Spokesman for UN Secretary-General, Stephanie Dujarric, said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned over reports of the continued use of live ammunition against demonstrators in Iraq.”
Urging “all actors to refrain from violence and to engage in peaceful and meaningful dialogue for the benefit of Iraq and the Iraqi people,” the UN reiterated calls on the “Iraqi authorities to exercise maximum restraint, protect the lives of demonstrators, respect the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and swiftly to investigate all acts of violence.”
Condemnations also came from members of the Iraqi opposition with Iraqi Rescue and Development Front led by Osama al-Nujaifa describing Thursday’s events in Najaf and Nasiriya as a “bloodbath”.
“The parliament has to be dissolved and new elections called to allow a transition to a new phase.
“Those in power are opening the doors of civil war by taking a military approach to resolving the crisis,” the opposition bloc warned.