BAGHDAD: Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr issued an ultimatum on Saturday to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government as the death toll from two days of new protests rose to 63.
Abdul Mahdi must respond to the protesters’ demands with genuine reform, or resign. If he fails to do either, Al-Sadr will force him out of office.
A week of protests in Baghdad and seven Shiite-dominated southern provinces against corruption, unemployment non-functioning public services began on Oct. 1. At least 147 people died and more than 7,000 were injured in a violent crackdown by the Iraqi government and its allies.
The protests resumed on Thursday night, with an even more violent response. Iraqi forces promised not to use live ammunition, but 63 protesters have been killed and more than 2,500 injured.
Most of the casualties were caused by tear gas and live bullets fired by guards from political parties and armed faction headquarters in the south, after protesters attacked and set fire to them.
Sadr, who has millions of followers and controls one of the largest armed factions and the largest parliamentary bloc, helped set up the current government. However, he has now withdrawn his support from Abdu Mahdi and placed fighters from his Saraya Al-Salam armed faction on high alert.
Demonstrations in Maysan and Nasiriyah provinces, the biggest Sadr strongholds in the south, were the deadliest in the past two days. Protesters attacked pro-Iran armed factions’ headquarters and burned them, including the base of the Badr Organization.
In Maysan province, masked gunmen chased an ambulance carrying a wounded armed faction commander, killed him and his brother and burned their bodies.
“Let us be clear that 90 percent of protesters in Amara are Sadrists,” one protest organizer told Arab News. “And after Sadr said he would protect the demonstrations, dozens of undercover Saraya Al-Salam have joined the protesters.”
Sadr told the prime minister on Saturday: “Take your hands off the people and stop the oppression. Enough, so that Iraq does not slide into sedition and civil war.
“Resign before you are forced to resign, or make reform before you are removed.”
A prominent Shiite politician told Arab News: “Sadr is seeking a military coup against the Shiite political forces. He started in the south and the next step is Baghdad.”
Hundreds of Saraya Al-Salam fighters are now heading to Baghdad from central and southern provinces. “Other Shiite armed factions may intervene to maintain security, which means fighting between the two sides,” the politicians said.