Baghdad, Iraq – At least five people have been killed and dozens of others wounded in clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq.
The violence broke out on Wednesday at a protest camp in the holy city of Najaf after al-Sadr’s supporters attempted to forcibly remove demonstrators from the site, where they were holding a sit-in.
According to Reuters News Agency, al-Sadr supporters – known as the blue caps because of the headgear they often wear – hurled petrol bombs at protesters’ tents and live gunfire rang out shortly afterwards.
Ali al Bayati, of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights told Al Jazeera that at least five people were killed and dozens more were wounded, while medics put the death toll at six.
A Najaf resident told Al Jazeera that the protest camp was completely emptied of demonstrators and had come under the control of pro-Sadr men and local police forces by nightfall. A video posted online showed medics attending to at least three wounded people in a crowded hospital emergency room.
Faisal Said al-Mutar, founder of youth empowerment organisation Ideas Beyond Borders, tweeted on Wednesday that his tent was burned down in the attack.
The deadly incident is the latest in a string of violent clashes between al-Sadr supporters and anti-government protesters, as the schism between the two groups continues to widen.
It came just hours after al-Sadr called on his supporters to “come together to reveal the saboteurs and the nationalist pretenders by helping the security forces. The blue hats have to pave the way for this with love peace and compassion.”
Al-Sadr initially backed anti-government protests when they erupted in October, as Iraqis in the capital, Baghdad, and Shia-majority areas of the south took to the streets to demand an end to corruption, better economic opportunities and basic services.
However, in January, he said he was withdrawing his support for the protests, prompting loyalist Sadrist demonstrators to leave the uprising, only to call on his followers to return to the streets last week.
On Sunday, he changed position again following the appointment of Mohammad Allawi as prime minister-designate, asking his followers to help security forces clear roadblocks set up by demonstrators. The protesters have rejected Allawi’s candidacy.
The spokesperson for al-Sadr’s militia, Saraya al-Salam, blamed unknown perpetrators for burning “a number of tents of the demonstrators and protesters … there were a number of minor injuries among the blue hats and this proves that they were targeted by another side.”
Allawi called on the caretaker government to protect the demonstrators until a new government that “meets the aspirations of all Iraqis” is formed.
Najaf governor Luay al-Yassiri announced that public buildings would be closed on Thursday due to the fluid security situation.
Meanwhile in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, protesters late on Wednesday night surfaced from inside their tents calling, “Najaf we will not forget you, all Baghdad is with you.”