Loyals of populist cleric Muqtada al Sadr storm an anti-government protest camp in southern Najaf city leading to deaths and injuries to at least 20 people, medics say.

An Iraqi demonstrator burns tires to block a road during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, February 5, 2020.
An Iraqi demonstrator burns tires to block a road during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, February 5, 2020. (Reuters)

At least eight people were killed in clashes in Iraq's southern city of Najaf on Wednesday after supporters of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed an anti-government protest camp, medical and security sources said.

The medical sources said at least 20 more were wounded in the violence but did not provide further details.

The security sources said that supporters of Sadr, known as blue hats for the blue caps they often wear, had tried to clear the area of anti-government protesters, who in turn tried to stop them.

Fights broke out between both groups, the blue hats threw petrol bombs at protester tents and live gunfire rang out shortly afterward, wounding and killing six people, they said.

Sadr's ambivalent stance

Sadr has at different times both supported and abandoned Iraqi protesters who demand removal of the entire ruling elite.

He urged followers last week to help authorities bring "day to day life" back to Iraq's streets by clearing roads blocked by sit-ins and ensuring businesses and schools can reopen after months of protests in which nearly 500 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.

Sadr has also urged the blue hats to allow protests to continue. 

Iraq PM-designate meets protesters

Also on Wednesday, Iraq's premier-designate Mohammad Allawi met with dozens of representatives of the protest movement rocking the capital and Shia-majority south since October, a participant in the meetings said on Wednesday. 

The protesters have been demanding an overhaul of the ruling elite and have rejected Allawi as a product of the political class they have been protesting against for months. 

When he announced his designation on February 1, Allawi extended a hand to the protesters and urged them to keep up their demonstrations. 

"Since the beginning of the week, Mohammad Allawi has held a string of meetings with several dozen representatives of protesters from the eight provinces taking part in the uprising," said Hisham al Hashemi, an Iraqi security expert present at the meetings. 

According to Hashemi, Allawi pledged to release Iraqis detained for demonstrating, compensate the families of those killed in protest-related violence and work with the United Nations to implement the demonstrators' demands. 

Allawi, 65, served as communications minister twice since the US-led invasion of 2003 but stepped down both times, citing corruption in the government. 

Reforms pledged 

Rooting out graft in Iraq — the 16th most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International — has been a key demand of protesters.

Hashemi said Allawi promised the demonstrator delegations that he would take on embezzlement and the bloated public sector by changing up to 170 "acting" government officials and 450 directors-general in the ministries. 

The PM-designate also said up to two ministers in his cabinet, which he has until March 2 to form, would be activists themselves and that demonstrators could have a say in up to five ministerial nominations.

It will be subject to a vote of confidence by parliament and if it passes, Allawi will formally take up his role as prime minister.

Until then, he is not able to implement executive decisions, including many of the reforms he is pledging. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies