Iraq: government sends security forces to Nasiriyah in wake of weekend skirmishes

Agreement struck with the government to allow the protesters return to encampment and to be protected by the new forces.

TOPSHOT - A youth draped in an Iraqi national flag flashes the victory gesture while standing before a statue of 19th century Iraqi cleric and poet Mohamed Said al-Habboubi (1849-1915) at the square named after him where anti-government demonstrators are gathering, in Iraq's southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province on November 29, 2020.  / AFP / Asaad NIAZI
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The Iraqi government has deployed federal forces in the southern city of Nasiriyah, the scene of bloody skirmishes between pro-reform protesters and followers of the Shiite firebrand cleric, Moqtada Al Sadr.

In a statement issued on Monday, the government said the reinforcement included an army brigade and the Federal Police Special Operations Brigade.

The new forces will support the provincial troops to “enforce the law, to beef up security and to protect the citizens along with public and private properties,” the statement added.

Dozens of Mr Al Sadr’s supporters stormed the main protests encampment in Nasiriyah’s Haboubi Square on Friday, burning tents and attacking protesters with bullets, knives and batons.

The confrontation left at least seven protesters killed and more than 50 wounded, according to local police and health officials. Another protester was killed in the nearby Kut city.

Hours after the attack, authorities sacked the provincial police chief after accusations of not interfering to stop the skirmishes, and imposed a curfew. On Sunday, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered the creation of a crisis team with a wide mandate, led by the National Security Adviser.

Since Sunday, the crisis team has been meeting with local officials, protesters and tribal leaders.

In a video published late on Sunday, Mr Al Kadhimi addressed the tribal leaders through the speaker of the phone.

“We need to turn a new page as the elections are approaching,” said Mr Al Kadhimi over the phone which was held by the National Security Advisor, Qassim Al Araji.

“We need calm and to advice our sons, brothers and beloved ones that you have the right to protests and to demand your rights,” he added.

“This government doesn’t have a magical stick to achieve everything, but this government has the chance to success and to restore security in Nasiriyah,” he continued.

A statement issued by the activists after the meeting said that both had agreed on allowing the protesters to protests freely at Haboubi Square and to be protected by the new forces.

They also agreed on bringing those behind Friday attack to justice, sacking all provincial officials and annulling all arrest warrants issued against the activists.

Friday confrontations coincided with the anniversary of last year bloody event in November in Nasiriyah when security forces opened fire on protesters, killing nearly 30. That forced the former government to resign days later.

On Monday, hundreds of protesters reerected tents at Al Haboubi Square with some built brick rooms as new security forces stationed nearby, a protester told The National.

"We will rebuild our encampment and will continue protesting," he said.

"We can't say that we are comfortable with the presence of these new forces because of what we saw last November from the government troops," he added, referring to the even when security forces opened fire on protesters, killing nearly 30.

"But, at least we have a fresh pledge from the government to protect us from the gangs who attacked us on Friday," he continued.

He spoke only on condition of anonymity for his safety.