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Thousands Protest in Iraq as Death Toll from Clashes Rises

Thousands Protest in Iraq as Death Toll from Clashes Rises

Tuesday, 1 December, 2020 - 05:30
Protesters hold pictures of people who have been killed in anti-government protests during a demonstration calling for the government to resign, in Baghdad, Iraq, on November 29, 2020. (AP)

Thousands flooded Iraq's southern hotspot of Nasiriya on Monday as a resident died from wounds sustained in clashes last week between anti-government protesters and supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Ridha al-Rikaby was hit in the head by a bullet on Friday when Sadr followers clashed with young demonstrators in Nasiriya's Habboubi Square, medics told AFP.

He died on Monday, bringing the toll from the day of violence to eight dead and several dozen wounded.

After last week's clashes, authorities imposed a lockdown to try to stop further rallies in the southern city, sacked the provincial police chief and launched an investigation into the events.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi dispatched National Security Advisor Qassem al-Araji and other senior officials to Nasiriya on Monday for talks with protesters.

But anger simmered in Nasiriya, with thousands turning out for a funeral march.

"Once again, peaceful protesters are dying under the government's nose, and the security forces can't hold the killers accountable," one of those taking part told AFP.

Nasiriya was a major hub for the protest movement that erupted in October 2019 against a government seen by demonstrators as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighboring Iran.

Nearly 600 people died across Iraq in protest-related violence during those rallies but there has been virtually no accountability for their deaths.

Last week's violence coincided with the one-year anniversary of one of the bloodiest incidents of the 2019 uprising, when more than three dozen people died at Nasiriya's Zeitun (Olive) Bridge on November 28.

The deaths sparked outrage across Iraq and prompted the resignation of then-premier Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Kadhimi succeeded him and has sought to reach out to protesters by setting June 2021 as a date for early elections.

The polls will take place under a new law agreed by parliament that will see district sizes reduced and votes for individual candidates replacing list-based ballots.

Most observers expect a delay of at least a few months while political parties prepare their campaigns, with Sadr and his candidates projected to make major wins.

Sadrists had already won big in the May 2018 vote with 54 of parliament's 329 seats, granting them the biggest single bloc.

In a tweet on Monday, Sadr urged Iraqis to "get ready" for next year's polls, describing the elections as a "major gateway" to implement anti-corruption reforms.

"We installed Kadhimi for you and changed the electoral law," Sadr said, alluding that his popularity in the street had helped bring Kadhimi to power.

"You will achieve the rest of your demands at the ballot box," said Sadr, who last week tweeted that he would push for the next premier to be a member of his movement for the first time.

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