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Attack on protest camp leaves six dead, dozens wounded in Iraq's south

Followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr attack tent camp of anti-government protesters in Nasiriyah's Haboubi Square
Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and southern city of Nasiriyah (AFP/File photo)

Six people have died and dozens of others were wounded in southern Iraq on Friday after a protest camp was attacked by supporters of the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah in a show of force as preparations ramp up for June parliamentary elections.

On Friday, followers of the cleric attacked a tent camp of anti-government protesters in Nasiriyah's Haboubi Square, said Mohammad al-Khayyat, a leader of the anti-government movement.

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"Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence could take place," Khayyat told AFP. 

Clashes continued into the night, with medics reporting a total of six dead by Saturday morning, five of them from bullet wounds, and at least 60 wounded. 

"The security forces clearly failed to prevent armed gangs from storming Haboubi Square," Asaad al-Naseri, an ex-Sadrist based in Nasiriyah, said in a tweet.

Nasiriyah was a major hub for the anti-government protest movement that erupted in October 2019.

It was also the site of one of the bloodiest incidents of the uprising  last November, when more than three dozen people died in protest-related violence. 

The deaths sparked outrage across Iraq, including by the country's top Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and prompted the resignation of then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

'We call the shots'

Current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has called for early polls in June 2021, almost a year ahead of schedule, to fulfil a key demand of last year's protest movement, which also included Sadr supporters.

In May 2018, Sadrists won 54 of parliament's 329 seats, granting the cleric the biggest single bloc. Now, Sadr is aiming for a majority in parliament.

In a sermon read out by the cleric's representative, Sadr, who is rarely seen in public, called for a "Sadrist majority" in the country's legislature. 

"This is a protest against the corrupt, the oppressors, who have driven Iraq to brink of bankruptcy, to the brink of the abyss," said Talal al-Saadi, a cleric who was among those protesting on Friday.

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.

"Obeying Sadr's call, we're making a stand that the whole world will see - we don't want criminals or corrupt people in Iraq," said protester Ahmad Rahim, with an Iraqi flag draped around his shoulders. 

"We call the shots," he added.