IRAQI TRIBES STEP IN TO SECURE ISIS FIGHTERS IN NASIRIYAH
▶ Fears that unrest across country could be used to free militants
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
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