Iraq: Sadr calls on supporters to crackdown on anti-government protests

The violence began as protesters joined the other pilgrims in the area between the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines in Karbala

Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims walk to the holy city of Kerbala, ahead of the holy Shi'ite ritual of Arbaeen, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kerbala, Iraq October 6, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
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Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr threatened on Wednesday to send his supporters to crack down on protests after clashes with security forces in the city of Karbala.

Dozens of anti-government protesters were injured during the annual Shiite pilgrimage of Arbaeen late Tuesday while carrying pictures of people killed during last year's demonstrations and chanting against the government and Iranian interference.

“Those [who protested] clearly sympathise with ISIS and the Baath regime and are against religion,” Mr Al Sadr, who was previously a supporter of the demonstrations, tweeted.

Clashes between security forces and protesters took place between two shrines in the city on Tuesday.

They were triggered when a group of pilgrims from parts of southern Iraq entered the visitation area separating the Imam Hussain and Imam Al Abbas shrines. They held banners with pictures of protesters killed last year and chanted anti-government slogans.

The Shiite pilgrimage marks the end of 40 days of mourning for Imam Hussain, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.

Armed groups with ties to Iraq's Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani are responsible for guarding the shrines and attempted to keep the group from mingling with other pilgrims.

Protesters were beaten with sticks after police were dispatched to the area. Among the injured were 30 demonstrators and fewer than a dozen pilgrims, including women. Some of the militiamen guarding the shrines were also injured.

"The attacks that occurred are a clear violation of human rights, those protesting should have not been harmed, they are only protesting for their basic rights," Hassan Ahmed, an activist from Baghdad, told The National.

Security forces, the government and religious authorities must do more to ensure citizens are protected, he said.

“Authorities must be aware that the pilgrimage to Karbala this year has a different tone to it. It’s more political, which reflects different ideologies among the Iraqi youth,” Mr Ahmed said.

Security forces said infiltrators were responsible for the attacks.

"During the pilgrimage in Karbala, a number of demonstrators from different governorates gathered yesterday afternoon in Karbala and headed towards the Qibla Gate and tried to enter through a closed road," security forces said.

The protesters “attacked security forces with stones” and that led to clashes, the forces said.

The pilgrimage is a key part of religious and social public rights of Iraqis, Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said.

“The citizen must adhere to the instructions laid down by the authorities supervising the pilgrimage. Security officials must also understand the difficult conditions in which people are in such as fear of catching coronavirus,” Mr Al Bayati said.

It comes as Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered the launch of a committee to investigate security breaches in the country.

For months US diplomats and troops across the country have been the targets of dozens of missile attacks that Washington blames on pro-Iranian groups.

Several rockets landed in a residential area near Baghdad's Green Zone but did not explode early on Monday.

A Katyusha rocket attack struck a residential building and killed six people – all of them women and children – last Monday.

The committee will “obtain any information it requires from any party to carry out its investigations", the prime minister’s office said.

“The findings of the committee will contribute to enhancing the authority of the state. Only the Iraqi state has the authority to decide on matters of war and peace."

New protests erupted on October 1 in Baghdad to mark a year since mass anti-government protests engulfed the capital and the predominately Shiite south.

A year ago, tens of thousands of Iraqi youths marched to decry rampant corruption and demanded early elections, better services and jobs. More than 550 people, mostly protesters, were killed, with Iraqi security forces using live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.