Pro-paramilitary demonstrators flood Iraqi protest camp

Baghdad (AFP) –


Crowds backing a paramilitary force close to Iran flooded the Iraqi capital's main protest camp on Thursday, rattling anti-government demonstrators who have denounced Tehran's role in their country.

Their flash-protest hinted at a new effort to delegitimize or intimidate the regime change movement and came after the apparent torture and death of a 19-year-old girl taking part in the rallies.

Since October, the youth-dominated protest movement in Iraq's capital and Shiite-majority south has slammed the entrenched political class as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighbouring Iran.

Iran holds vast sway among Iraq's ruling figures and military actors, chiefly the Shiite-majority Hashed al-Shaabi armed network.

On Thursday, several thousand people waving sticks, Iraqi flags and the Hashed's logo marched to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of anti-government protests in the capital.

They chanted against the United States, Saudi Arabia and ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, who was toppled in the US-led invasion of 2003, and even briefly against Iran.

Some carried portraits of Hashed fighters killed while battling jihadists and of the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The Hashed first backed Iraq's government against the protests, but after Sistani's intervention last week, it dropped its support.

The new crowds carried signs opposing "vandals", referring to those attacking public or private property in the rallies, but protesters sensed something more threatening.

"They've ruined it," said one demonstrator, while another muttered, "It's going to get messy."

- Gruesome deaths -

"They came here to clear us out and end the protests," said Tamim, a 30-year-old demonstrator wearing a protective vest.

There were no confrontations on Thursday, but Harith Hasan of Carnegie's Middle East Center said the developments could increase tensions.

"This could be the beginning of a competition or conflict to occupy the public space," he wrote on Twitter.

And Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said it appeared to be "a new tactic to 'crowd out' or close the space down available to the demonstrators".

Activists in Baghdad and elsewhere have already been subject to threats, kidnappings and even killings in what they say are attempts to keep them from demonstrations.

In one particularly gruesome case, the bruised body of 19-year-old Zahra Ali was left outside her family home late Monday, her father told AFP.

She had been missing since that morning.

"We had been distributing food and drink to protesters in Tahrir and we had never been threatened, but some people took pictures of us," Ali Salman said.

"The court established she had suffered electrical shocks," he added.

- 'Take a stance' -

Mass rallies have rocked Iraq's capital and south since early October, first denouncing government graft and a lack of jobs before moving to broader demands for deep-rooted regime change.

Nearly 430 people have been killed and 20,000 wounded since demonstrations erupted, according to an AFP toll compiled from medics, police and a national commission.

The victims' families have been demanding justice for their loved ones and many of them hit the streets of Iraq's southern Diwaniyah on Thursday.

They joined thousands of other protesters, mostly teachers and students taking part in a general strike, AFP's correspondent said.

"The authorities are putting off the issue of who killed our sons and brothers in the protests," said Assaad Malek, whose brother died in protest-related violence.

"They should take a tough stance and severely punish the officers and SWAT forces who killed my brother," he added.

A verdict for security force members accused of violence against protesters in Diwaniyah was scheduled for Thursday, but the session was indefinitely postponed.

On Sunday, an Iraqi court sentenced a police officer to death after convicting him of killing demonstrators, the first such sentence in the two months of deadly unrest.

In the southern hotspot of Nasiriyah, hundreds gathered at the main protest camp in the city centre, joined by delegations from the province's powerful tribes.

Tribal dignitaries intervened last week to tamp down tensions between protesters and security forces after more than two dozen people were killed in a bloody crackdown.

A spree of violence left several dozen dead in the south last week, ultimately paving the way for the embattled prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, to resign at the weekend.

President Barham Saleh has been formally tasked with naming a successor, but such decisions typically come only after drawn-out horsetrading among factions.

Iran's pointman on Iraq, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani, has been in Baghdad to rally political forces around a new premier.

Parliament, which is set to meet on Thursday afternoon, has meanwhile focused on a new electoral reform law.