At least five protesters and two policemen have been killed in the Iraqi capital during a rally by thousands calling for an overhaul of the electoral system, as the tension between the Shiite-headed government and a religious leader began to reach a critical point.
Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets at thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shia leader, who were demonstrating on Saturday near Baghdad’s Green Zone to press for electoral changes.
Sadr has accused the elections commission of being corrupt and called for the commission’s members to be changed, according to a statement from his office.
The clashes broke out as the protesters, who responded to Sadr’s calls, attempted to cross the bridge that links Tahrir Square where they had gathered and the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings, embassies and international organizations.
At least 320 protesters and seven police officers were wounded as violence gripped the rally.
The Associated Press news agency, quoting hospital officials, said the officer died of a bullet wound.
“There were seven dead as a result of the violence. Two of them are from the security forces and the other five are protesters,” a police colonel told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
He put the number of people hurt in the chaos at more than 200.
In a statement reacting to the killing of his followers on Saturday evening, Sadr said: “Their blood won’t have been shed in vain.” He promised “peaceful” retaliation.
Sadr says the electoral commission is favorable to his Shi’ite rival, former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a politician close to Iran whom he accuses of corruption.
He also blames Maliki for the failure of the Iraqi army to contain the advance of Islamic State in 2014, as he was then prime minister and commander of the armed forces.
Tension in critical time
“We will not give in to threats,” said Serbat Mustafa, the head of the electoral commission, in an interview with a local Iraqi television channel on Saturday afternoon.
Mustafa said he would not offer his resignation and accused Sadr of using the commission as a political “scapegoat”.
The growing tensions come at a bad time for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who is trying to focus on a critical battle with Islamic State in Mosul, the last major urban stronghold of the Sunni militants in northern Iraq.
Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, called on the demonstrators to remain peaceful and to “abide by the law”.
The Najaf-based Sadr, however, gave a green light to an escalation of the protests, telling his supporters: “If you want to approach the gates of the Green Zone to affirm your demands and make them heard to those on the other side of the fence … you can.”
Sadr has been a fierce critic of Abadi, and, last year, protests that included many of his followers breached the Green Zone twice.
Abadi ordered an investigation into the violence amid claims by the Interior Ministry that some demonstrators carried firearms and knives. Sadr insists his followers were peaceful.
In a statement, Maliki’s Dawa party accused Sadr without naming him of trying to “distract the Iraqi people in sedition in order to prevent the efforts to get rid of Daesh,” an acronym for Islamic State.
Sadr is openly hostile to American policies in the Middle East and, at the same time, he has a troubled relationship with Iraqi political groups allied with Iran.
Sadr is the heir of a clerical family who suffered under Saddam Hussein, the former president toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. His Shi’ite rivals had fled Saddam’s persecution, returning to Iraq after the invasion.
A hardline Iranian-backed Shi’ite leader, sheikh Qais al-Khazali warned Sadr against escalation. “While we stand by the freedom to demonstrate, we stress the need not to allow events to spin out of control and lead to harmful consequences.”
Iraqi forces last month completed the first phase of the Mosul offensive that started in October, by removing the militants from the eastern side of the city. They are now preparing to attack the part that lies west of the Tigris river.