Four people were shot dead and dozens wounded in Iraq’s south, medics said, in clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of Shia Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
The violence erupted as tens of thousands of Sadr supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriya on Friday in a show of force rivalling the waning youth-dominated protest movement that erupted in October 2019, as preparations ramp up for June parliamentary elections.
One of the leading anti-government protesters in Nasiriya, Mohammad al-Khayyat, accused Sadrists of setting fire to tents put up by his fellow demonstrators and shooting at them.
“Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence could take place,” Khayyat told AFP.
Medical sources told AFP that the violence had left four people dead and wounded 51 others, nine of them by gunfire.
Al-Sadr’s supporters also gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square – once the epicentre of mass anti-government protests – to show their support for the Shia leader whose bloc holds a considerable majority in parliament.
Iraq is facing its most dire fiscal crisis in decades following a collapse in oil prices earlier this year and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the government unable to pay public sector salaries on time.
The Sadrist movement had called for protests to back the reform of what it says is a corrupt state, but its populist chief has also been making moves ahead of next year’s federal election in June.
In a tweet this week, al-Sadr said he expected big wins for his party and would push for the next prime minister to be a member of the Sadrist movement for the first time.
His followers called for a demonstration in support of the leader’s call for mass participation in the vote.
Most supporters stood unmasked in the square, chanting: “Yes, yes for our leader,” in support of the firebrand leader as Iraq remains a high-risk country for coronavirus infection. The crowd then stood side-by-side for Friday prayers at noon.
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from Baghdad, said the mass rally shows the political muscle and organisational capabilities that al-Sadr’s supporters are able to muster.
“And this stands in stark contrast to the anti-government protest movement that has been demonstrating here in Tahrir Square until just a few weeks ago,” said Foltyn, reporting from Tahrir Square.
“They have claimed that they have been infiltrated by parties like the Sadrist movement and that their movement has essentially been hijacked,” she said.
“This gathering here leaves little doubt as to who has emerged as the victor after months of anti-government protests,” she added.
Observers consider the protest as a show of mettle by al-Sadr meant to send a message to other political blocs that, on Iraq’s streets, the Muslim leader still has clout.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for elections to take place next June, a year earlier than expected.
That was a key demand of anti-government protesters who paralysed Iraq’s streets when tens of thousands demonstrated last October.
The elections will take place under a new law approved by legislators this year that will theoretically enable more independent candidates to run.
Iraq’s electoral commission has said it is prepared to hold early elections if the government allocates a budget for the vote.