Iraqi protesters tell police: halt arrests or brace for more

A movement began in recent days in Nasiriyah demanding release of detained activists

Iraqi protesters are pictured next to burning tyres during clashes with police during anti-government demonstrations in the city of Nasiriyah in the Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq on January 10, 2021.  / AFP / Asaad NIAZI

Protestors in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah will stop escalating rallies if security forces halt the mass arrest and intimidation of campaigners, movement leaders said on Tuesday.

Anti-government rallies flared up in recent days in Haboubi Square, where demands for the release of activists arrested in recent weeks were made.

Three people have died and more than 100 wounded on both sides at the rallies.

A police officer was killed on Sunday as security forces fired on crowds in an attempt to disperse protestors who gathered for a third day in a row.

“Following the release of peaceful demonstrators who were arrested in connection with the protests, we will stop. But there must be no other arrests made,” a statement from the protest movement said.

Protestors said that if security forces detain others they were “fully prepared and ready to escalate with greater force - one that the government has not seen before”.

Tents were set up in the city centre again, a common sight until November, when eight people were killed in clashes between protesters and followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.

“After suspending the peaceful protest, security forces forcibly arrested demonstrators and targeted their homes despite the formation of a crisis cell by the government to stabilise the city,” protesters said.

Nasiriyah was a focus for the anti-government protest movement that started in October 2019.

Protests fizzled out last year because of the coronavirus pandemic and a security operation that left nearly 600 dead and 30,000 wounded.

But kidnappings, targeted killing and arrests of protest leaders have continued.

Alongside demanding an end to political corruption, protesters want jobs and improved public services.

But the state’s ability to finance these demands is hamstrung by an economic crisis, including a huge fiscal deficit.

Many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, healthcare or education, and the government has done little to address the demands of protesters.