Defiant protesters continue to fill the streets of Iraq despite attacks from security forces and Iran-backed militias that may have killed 550 demonstrators, according to the Iraqi Commission for Human Rights (ICHR).
Protesters remained remarkably committed to their cause even after influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdrew his support in late January, then sent his followers into Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to fight with protesters last weekend.
The ICHR said on Monday that its estimate of 550 protesters killed was probably low because their data only dated back to October 30, and numerous killings are known to have taken place before that.
Many of these killings were perpetrated by the Iran-backed Shiite militia forces collectively known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) after they were organized and sanctioned by the government in Baghdad to combat the Islamic State in 2014. The PMU have been accused of abusive behavior and working with foreign terrorist groups in the Iraqi border region. Evidently they can do as they please in Baghdad and other cities without fear of prosecution or interference from the Iraqi government, including the wholesale murder of protesters.
The PMU are now in league with Sadr, who was somewhat supportive of the protest movement until a few weeks ago when a member of his political alliance became the new designated prime minister. The protesters were considerably less pleased with the selection of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as prime minister than Sadr and his followers were, so the Sadrists are now working with government security forces and the PMU to crush the protest movement.
Clinging to their core principle that members of the corrupt Iraqi elite cannot be trusted to run the government, protesters hit the streets of Nasiriyah on Tuesday, burning tires and braving brutal attacks from security forces.
“As genuine protesters, we have stayed on the streets. Our demands are right and heard by the United Nations and the entire world, we want a neutral prime minister and a [new] elections law. Those wanting to remove our tents and set up their own are party-affiliated groups and we know who are they associated with and where have they come from,” one of the Nasiriyah demonstrators told the Kurdish news service Rudaw.
Not all of Sadr’s supporters are comfortable with the cleric’s latest change in political position. AFP reported on Monday that some of them have whiplash from Sadr’s ever-changing directives, which he tends to issue on Twitter nowadays.
Sadr’s hardcore supporters still say they would walk through fire if he commanded it, but some younger followers think he was right to support the protest movement, express admiration for the determined protesters, and absolutely loathe Allawi. Religious devotion keeps most of them from openly criticizing or defying Sadr, but the cleric’s move into the Iraqi elite with a successful 2018 run for parliament created a schism with followers who liked him better as a fiery anti-establishment populist.
Iraqi protesters on Monday asked for protection from the United Nations against the Shiite militia, Sadrists, and government security forces, even though they strongly disagree with the U.N. endorsement of Allawi for prime minister. Protesters punctuated this appeal by hanging a U.N. flag over the Turkish restaurant in Tahrir Square that has long served as a base of operations for protests, but the Sadrists expelled them from the restaurant by force on Monday and began setting the tents on fire in protest camps.