73ºF

Iraqi officials: At least 8 shot dead in southern Iraq

BAGHDAD – At least eight anti-government protesters were shot dead and 52 were wounded in clashes with followers of a radical Shiite cleric in southern Iraq on Wednesday, Iraqi medical officials and activists said.

The violence comes as new divisions have emerged among protesters and supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who initially threw his weight behind the uprising. But he then re-positioned himself toward the political establishment after political elites selected Mohammed Allawi as prime minister-designate, a candidate he endorsed.

Since then al-Sadr has issued a dizzying array of calls to followers, asking them to return to the streets days after withdrawing support from protests. The often contradictory orders have exacerbated existing tensions between anti-government demonstrators and his followers, with some activists claiming al-Sadr’s followers had threatened them to toe the cleric’s line or leave protest sites.

Clashes took place between protesters and followers of al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, two witnesses said.

According to activists, al-Sadr's supporters stormed the sit-in site and torched protest tents. Demonstrators attempted to prevent them from entering, using sticks, and were wounded when shots were fired.

At least eight protesters were killed by gunfire and 52 others were wounded, according to two hospital officials and a morgue official.

Anti-government protesters who took to the streets on Oct. 1 in Baghdad and southern Iraq to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment, have rejected Allawi's candidacy. At least 500 have died under fire from security forces in the movement, now in it's fifth month.

In a tweet, the prime minister-designate said the "painful developments" should be an incentive for the current government to carry out its duty to protect protesters until a new government that fulfills the ambitions of all Iraqis is formed.

Anti-government activists blamed al-Sadr's militia, Saraya Salam, or Peace Brigades, for the killings.

“All the tents were burned in the square and it is in the control of al-Sadr's followers now,” said Fadi al-Hussein, a protester. “The police did nothing. We left the square.”

Safaa al-Tamimi, a military spokesman for Saraya al-Salam, said "unknown groups" attacked protesters in Sadrayn Square in Najaf with grenades. He told Iraqi News agency INA that the unidentified groups attacked peaceful protesters, including supporters of al-Sadr. He accused parties he did not name of trying to “foment strife.”

Najaf province governor Louay al-Yasiri announced that Thursday would be an official day off in the province.