Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters, also known as the blue hats, on Monday allegedly opened fire on people protesting against the appointment of Mohammed Allawi as the country's new prime minister. This came after Sadr, who had alternately sided with the anti-government protesters and the Iran-backed political groups they reject, urged his followers Sunday to help security forces clear roads blocked during months of sit-in protests, calling for a return to normal life.
Eyewitnesses told Anadolu Agency (AA) that the blue hats opened fire on protesters in the Al-Najaf province of southern Iraq. They said that the blue hats forcibly dispersed the protesters and reopened the blocked roads. In another southern province of Dhi Qar, according to local media, the blue hats dispersed the protesters from government buildings and schools in coordination with security forces. Meanwhile, the blue hats clashed with protesters in the central Babil province as the latter refused to end their sit-in.
Iraq has been roiled by mass protests since early October over poor living conditions and corruption, forcing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign in November but stay on as a caretaker head of state.
Allawi's nomination on Feb. 1 has so far failed to quell the months-long rallies sweeping Baghdad and the mainly-Shiite south, where young demonstrators have demanded nothing short of a total government overhaul. He must form a government within a month and face a confidence vote in parliament. Iran welcomed his designation Sunday.
Most young protesters have rejected Allawi as too close to the ruling elite but powerful cleric Sadr, who has backed the rallies, welcomed his appointment Saturday. Sadr has directed anti-government unrest in previous years, but he has not been able to control this round of demonstrations and many protesters oppose him as much as do the rest of the political class.
The death toll from anti-government protests in Iraq has risen to 556, Iraq's Independent High Commission for Human Rights said Sunday. A statement from the press office of Ali al-Bayati, a representative of the commission, said those who doubt the figure should reveal their evidence. According to Amnesty International and previous statements by President Barham Saleh, more than 600 people have been killed during the protests. The commission earlier announced that more than 17,000 people have been injured.