Iraqi students flood streets of Najaf in show of resilience against Sadr supporters

Anti-government protests started in October over widespread government corruption, lack of public services and unemployment

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Iraqi students defied populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s calls to end their demonstrations and flooded on to the streets of Baghdad and the country’s southern provinces.

In Najaf, protesters chanted anti-Al Sadr slogans. The cleric’s supporters killed eight demonstrators last week in attacks on protest camps.

“There is no God but God ... Sadr is the enemy of God,” protesters shouted in the holy city. “Moqtada Al Sadr is a killer,” they chanted on Sunday.

Last week, the populist cleric called on his supporters to ensure the reopening of schools, roads and government offices that had been shut by months of demonstrations.

The “Persistence is harder than exams” and “Down with filthy Moqtada” chants began trending on Twitter.

“Our responsibility is to persist for the sake of all the blood that has fallen,” one protester, Ali Emad, said on social media.

At first Mr Al Sadr showed great support for the protest movement in Iraq, mobilising the public to come out and demonstrate.

But since last week, demonstrators said they faced a new threat from supporters of Mr Al Sadr, who initially backed the protest movement but then threw his support behind the nomination of Mohammed Allawi as Iraq’s new prime minister-designate last weekend.

The cleric’s often contradictory orders have exacerbated existing tensions between the anti-government demonstrators and his followers. Some activists claim that Mr Al Sadr’s supporters ordered them to toe the line or leave the protest sites.

Anti-government protests began in October over widespread government corruption, unemployment and a lack of public services. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping changes to the political system that was imposed on Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. The security forces have responded harshly.

More than 500 protesters have been killed since the unrest began and tens of thousands have been injured.

The resilience shown by the younger generations makes it clear that the protests are a force to be reckoned with, said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Al Bayan Centre, a think tank in Baghdad.

“Ignoring them or attempting to crush them will only have greater repercussions. [There is] much solidarity with them across Iraq,” Mr Jiyad said.

The unity among protesters “cuts across the so-called ‘sectarian divide’ and ‘class boundaries’ as the post-2003 generations from all backgrounds are widely expressing their objections to the ruling system”, he said.

Most of the protesters reject Mr Allawi’s nomination and say he is too close to the political elite they have been demonstrating against for months.

The prime minister-designate has until March 2 to form a new Cabinet and put it to Parliament for a vote of confidence.

Mr Al Sadr’s political aide, Kadhem Issawi, insisted the new Cabinet must not include members of the political elite – particularly Shiite military groups like the Hashed Al Shaabi, which rivals Mr Al Sadr.

“If Sayyed [Lord] Moqtada hears that Allawi has granted a ministry to any side, specifically the Shiite armed factions, Iraq will turn into hell for him and will topple him in just three days,” Mr Issawi told a gathering late on Saturday.