▶ Fears that un­rest across coun­try could be used to free mil­i­tants

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - PESHA MAGID Nasiriyah

South­ern Iraqi tribal fight­ers are sta­tioned around a prison where ISIS de­tainees are be­ing held over fears that the chaos of mass ral­lies across the coun­try would be used to free mil­i­tants, clan el­ders have told The Na­tional.

Tribal sheikh Natham Badr Ru­mayad claimed uniden­ti­fied “in­fil­tra­tors” were en­ter­ing the Nasiriyah area that has been shaken by a bloody crack­down on protests in re­cent days.

He said that tribal mili­tias have set up check­points on the ma­jor roads to­wards the city of Nasiriyah to check those en­ter­ing the area and had taken up po­si­tions around Al Hoot jail.

“We have com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the po­lice com­man­ders and se­cu­rity com­man­ders in the prov­ince,” he said. “We heard that there are move­ments of in­fil­tra­tors to­wards the po­lice cen­tres and Al Hoot prison where ter­ror­ists are im­pris­oned. There­fore tribal sheikhs de­cided to help se­cure the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.”

He did not spec­ify who the “in­fil­tra­tors” were, only say­ing that some were spark­ing much of the vi­o­lence at protests.

Bagh­dad and south­ern Iraq have been un­set­tled by weeks of protests against cor­rup­tion and poor public ser­vices that led on Sun­day to par­lia­ment ac­cept­ing prime min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi’s res­ig­na­tion two days af­ter he an­nounced his in­ten­tion to stand down.

While the govern­ment has so far failed to stem the public anger, se­cu­rity ser­vices have killed more than 400 peo­ple, with live am­mu­ni­tion be­ing used to dis­perse demon­stra­tors.

Rights groups and ac­tivists have also de­cried the prac­tice of fir­ing large tear gas can­is­ters at head height, killing sev­eral pro­test­ers.

Late on Wed­nes­day, in the worst sin­gle episode of vi­o­lence since protests be­gan at the start of Oc­to­ber, at least 29 peo­ple were killed when se­cu­rity forces fired on pro­test­ers oc­cu­py­ing a bridge in Nasiriyah. Lo­cal sources put the num­ber of dead at closer to 45.

The next day, armed men were on the streets of the city and wit­nesses re­ported hear­ing gun­fire.

Into this volatile sit­u­a­tion stepped the lo­cal tribes. In south­ern Iraq, a patch­work of ma­jor tribes wield sig­nif­i­cant tower. The clans have their own courts, so­cial struc­tures and pa­tron­age net­works.

On Sun­day, pa­rades of men marched through the streets hold­ing tribal flags and pic­tures of their dead. The faces on the posters were mostly males in their late teens and early 20s.

Sheikh Ru­mayad said their mili­tias were now mo­bil­is­ing to pro­tect demon­stra­tors and pre­vent more vi­o­lence.

“To­day, we were here to pro­tect the pro­test­ers first and se­condly to pro­tect the se­cu­rity and the po­lice,” he said.

On Sun­day, a cau­tious calm re­turned to Nasiriyah with pro­test­ers turn­ing out to help clear the streets, sweep­ing away ash from the tyres burnt the pre­vi­ous day.

But tribal fight­ers main­tained their po­si­tions at the gates to the city and the roads around Al Hoot prison. Other armed men pa­trolled the city.

An­gered at the blood­shed last week, a crowd of young men gath­ered around Nasiriyah po­lice station on Satur­day evening and threat­ened to burn it to the ground.

How­ever, tribal au­thor­i­ties and civil­ian ac­tivists ne­go­ti­ated with the po­lice who agreed not to shoot at pro­test­ers while the crowd agreed not to set fire to govern­ment build­ings.

“We do not want the fires be­cause they are Iraqi cen­tres that will re­turn to the Iraqi peo­ple and do not be­long to govern­ment,” Sheikh Mo­hamed Al Tama of the Ha­tim tribe told

The Na­tional.

On Sun­day, mag­is­trates in Dhi Qar prov­ince, where Nasiriyah is lo­cated, is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for Gen Jamil Al Sham­mari, ac­cus­ing the mil­i­tary of­fi­cial of “is­su­ing the or­ders that caused the killing of demon­stra­tors in the prov­ince”.

Gen Al Sham­mari was sent to Nasiriyah to re­store or­der af­ter the Ira­nian con­sulate in the city of Na­jaf was set on fire on Wed­nes­day.

He was re­called to Bagh­dad the next day as the death toll rose, but his re­moval is not enough for lo­cal tribal lead­ers.

“Days ago, there were many in­jured and many mar­tyred be­cause of the armed forces that were here,” Sheikh Al Tama said. “A mil­i­tary leader came and now he has been ar­rested be­cause the blood of the mar­tyrs and in­jured are all on the hands of Jamil Al Sham­mari.”

Sheikh Ru­mayad echoed the anger. “We de­mand a civil trial of Jamil Al Sham­mari,” he said.

Gen Al Sham­mari is well known in the south of Iraq, hav­ing led a crack­down on protests in the coastal city of Basra last year that killed dozens.

In re­sponse to that vi­o­lence, the for­mer prime min­is­ter Haider Al Abadi’s of­fice an­nounced that the gen­eral was be­ing trans­ferred to Bagh­dad to take up a post as pres­i­dent of the De­fence Univer­sity for Mil­i­tary Stud­ies.

Gen Al Sham­mari is the high­est-rank­ing mem­ber of the se­cu­rity forces to face le­gal ac­tion for the re­sponse to protests that has left hundreds dead and thou­sands in­jured.

Sep­a­rately, a court in Kut, 171 kilo­me­tres south-east of Bagh­dad, sen­tenced a po­lice ma­jor to death by hang­ing and a lieu­tenant colonel to seven years in prison for their roles in the deaths of pro­test­ers in the city yes­ter­day.

Sev­eral pro­test­ers in Nasiriyah who spoke to The Na­tional wel­comed the in­ter­ven­tion of the clans.

“The tribes have a piv­otal role in Nasiriyah … we are a tribal so­ci­ety … there is no one who does not need his tribe,” said a pro­tester who asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

“The tribes have a key role, a heroic pres­ence, they al­ways have but yes­ter­day they proved their words and their … pres­ence pro­tected the blood [of pro­test­ers].”

Mo­q­tada Jabar, 28, stood in the cen­tre of the demon­stra­tions in Nasiriyah’s Haboubiya Square, sur­rounded by a colour­ful ar­ray of tribal flags.

He said he was grate­ful that the tribes had come to the protests, but told The Na­tional they should have ar­rived ear­lier.

“If they had been here from the first and sec­ond day of the protests, there would not have been the blood­shed that we see to­day. They were very late, I’m sorry to say,” he said.

Mr Jabar said he lost friends dur­ing the vi­o­lence last Thurs­day, in­clud­ing Mostafa Ab­dul Sada, 22, who was killed along with oth­ers when se­cu­rity forces stormed the city’s Zey­touna Bridge.

“His tribe has lost five mem­bers as of now – all of the Nasiriyah tribes have vic­tims,” Mr Jabar said. “All of those who have lost blood de­mand their dig­nity.”

The mili­tias have set up check­points on roads to­wards the city and taken up po­si­tions around Al Hoot jail

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