Baghdad, Iraq – Anti-government protesters have shown no sign of backing down from their demands and demonstrating against what they call the corrupt ruling elite, despite a heavy-handed response from security forces.
Clashes continued on Sunday in the capital, Baghdad, and several southern cities of Karbala, Diwaniya and Basra, a day after influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced he will no longer interfere in the nearly four-months-long protest movement.
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Observers say al-Sadr, who also heads the largest coalition in parliament, offered support and physical protection to protesters from pro-Iranian militias.
His decision, which prompted many of his supporters to pack up their tents and leave the protest sit-ins, gave the security forces the green light to attempt to disperse the protest sites on Saturday, protesters said.
At least 12 demonstrators have been killed since Saturday, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said, with three in the southern Nasiriya city, and nine in Baghdad province. In total, at least 500 protesters have been killed since October.
“Yesterday’s events certainly indicate that the government felt confident that the withdrawal of the Sadrists from the protests would allow it to crush them once and for all,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.
“If yesterday’s events turn into a permanent break between Sadr and the protest movement, the latter risk increased fragmentation and political isolation.”
However, Haddad added, the use of brute force has failed to end the protests or diminish the momentum of demonstrators’ mobilisation.
While riot police prevented students from reaching the central Haboubi Square in Nasiriya, thousands continued to demonstrate in the streets.