Iraq's tribal elders call for punishment for 'Nasiriyah massacre'

Iraq's judiciary issued an arrest warrant for army general Jamil Al Shammari for a brutal crackdown last week that left 29 protesters dead

Staff General Jamil al-Shammari, Basra security operations commander, gives a press conference at the oeprations command headquarters in the southern city on September 5, 2018. (Photo by Haidar MOHAMMED ALI / AFP)
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Tribal elders in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah have called for the punishment of Jamil Al Shammari, the army general who has been widely blamed for the killing of at least 29 Iraqi protesters during a brutal crackdown last week that has been labelled a massacre.

On Sunday, Iraq's judiciary issued an arrest warrant for Mr Al Shammari for the events of November 28, when security forces killed dozens and wounded over 200 in an operation that lasted from dawn until the afternoon. He is barred from leaving the country.

It is the first legal action against a high-ranking member of the armed forces since protests first broke out in Iraq at the beginning of October. Over 420 protesters have been killed by security forces since then, while thousands have been injured.

Tribal leaders from the southern city expressed shock at the army general’s unbridled use of force. Some said he should be sentenced for his role in ordering security forces to open fire on protesters as they attempted to forcibly clear them from the Zeitoun bridge, which had been blocked by demonstrators in an act of civil disobedience.

They killed our children, this means there must be the worst punishment.

“They killed our children, this means there must be the worst punishment. This case demands blood, because there were rivers of blood," said Sheikh Hamad Soleiman Nasrallah, who is the head of a large and powerful tribe in the city.

The city’s tribal elders hold an influential position in the province with their own networks of justice and administration and have sworn to prevent further violence from breaking out Nasiriyah.

"The tribes did not know that the operations would be like this. If we had known that a military commander … would do this we would have come with bullets, we would not have allowed them to enter," said Sheikh Nasrallah.

Mr Al Shammari was removed from his position following the violence after one day in office. Since the High Judiciary Council issued his arrest warrant, his locations has been unknown.

“He will be judged in Haboubi square,” said Sheikh Mohammed Al Tama Al Hatim, another tribal leader, referring to the city's central square in Nasiriyah where protests have been taking place and where he has been actively attending.

In reaction to what locals have begun to call the "Nasiriya massacre”, tribal elders rallied forces to stabilise the situation, closing the roads leading in and out. On Sunday, large groups carrying tribal flags joined the protests.

“We are here to protect the protesters first, and secondly to protect the security and the police,” said Sheikh Natham Badr Rumayad, a prominent member of the Rumayad tribe, which joined others in setting up checkpoints on the roads surrounding the city.

"We will not let the anti-riot forces enter the city. We will not allow any military force to enter again except for local police,” said Sheikh Nasrallah, whose tribe took control of the road leading from the nearby city of Salah. “We told them that as the tribes, we will not allow [this sort of violence]. We protect the peace … because this is our country we do not want our country to turn to war.”

While the tribal forces say they control plentiful arms, they also said they do not want to turn them against security forces due to fears that it could send the country spiralling into chaos.

"They [the anti-riot forces] are armed, but we are armed more. But we won’t use our arms … because it could affect the country badly," said Sheikh Nasrallah.

Thursday was a bloody day across Iraq’s Southern provinces, with at least 18 killed in Najaf after protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate. The incident led Iraq’s top cleric Ayatalloh Ali Sistani to withdraw support from the parliament in his weekly Friday address. Shortly following the speech, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Adel Mahdi submitted his resignation.

Tribal leaders told The National that they stood with the protesters when it came to their demands for the resignation of the entire government, and that Mr Adel Mahdi's resignation was only the first step.

Sheikh Al Hatim cast doubt on the selection process for a new prime minister due to Iranian influence.

"There can be no prime minister in Iraq without the people’s opinion or will," he said. "We will not leave the square until we get our demands. The government resigns and there are swift elections."


Iraq protests