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Iraq protesters defiant as they bury 7 killed in overnight clash

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Najaf (Iraq) (AFP)

Young Iraqi protesters pushed on with anti-government rallies across the country on Thursday as they buried seven fellow activists killed overnight in violence blamed on supporters of powerful cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Sadr -- a militiaman-turned-politician with a cult-like following -- had backed the rallies demanding a government overhaul when they erupted in October but has since then changed course.

In backing ex-minister Mohammad Allawi as Iraq's new premier, Sadr split with the rest of the popular movement, and his diehard followers have turned on rival protesters.

Late Wednesday, Sadrists raided a protest camp in Iraq's shrine city of Najaf where demonstrators had been chanting against Allawi.

Seven anti-government protesters were killed by bullets to the head or chest, medics in the city said, and dozens more were wounded.

On Thursday morning, the dead were wrapped in white shrouds and carefully laid in coffins draped with Iraqi flags, then carried in a funeral march through the city.

Young Iraqis, sobbing, grasped at the coffins as they were carried past.

Despite the bloodshed, Iraqis gathered for renewed rallies, with hundreds of students flooding Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

"Whether ten or 100 die, I won't abandon this cause!" they chanted, as a girl stood silently nearby with a banner that read, "Our martyrs are our candidates".

High school student Tayba walked into Tahrir alone, an Iraqi flag tied around her shoulders.

"We've finally got used to it," she said somberly, of the violence in Najaf.

"In fact, we're even more determined. Before, the students used to hold just one demonstration a week, now there are three."

- 'Masks have fallen off' -

Nearly 490 people have been killed and 30,000 wounded since October, most of them demonstrators, according to a count compiled by AFP from security and medical sources.

The demonstrators have demanded a total overhaul of the ruling system and have rejected Allawi -- nominated on February 1 to replace Adel Abdel Mahdi, who stepped down in December -- as too close to the political elite.

Sadr's endorsement of Allawi prompted a sudden escalation in tensions with other demonstrators, which spilled over on Monday when an anti-government protester was stabbed to death in Hilla, south of the capital.

Sadr has ostensibly tried to calm the tensions in the days since but for those in Tahrir, the damage was done.

"Did you see what happened in Najaf? The masks have fallen off," said Mohammad, a university student who has skipped class every day since October to protest.

"We've even told the Sadrists here that they were supposed to secure the square and their guys are the ones doing this -- but they don't listen to us," he told AFP.

For demonstrators in Nasiriyah further south, the deaths in Najaf are only the latest episode of their bloodstained uprising.

"Demonstrators were shot dead, kidnapped, assassinated, and now their camps are attacked in broad daylight under the watchful eye of the security forces," said Adnan Dafar, a protester.

"The armed factions do whatever they want just so they can end this revolution."

- 'No Moqtada!'

And in Diwaniyah, protesters added Sadr to their chants denouncing the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi military network led by Hadi Ameri which many have blamed for violence against protesters.

"No Moqtada, No Hadi! My country will stay free!" they repeated.

On Thursday, the United Nations' top representative in Baghdad condemned the bloodshed in Najaf.

"Protection of peaceful protesters should be guaranteed at all times, not when it is too late," she said.

When he announced his candidacy, Allawi had extended a hand to protesters and urged them to keep up their rallies.

He has since met with representatives of the movement, pledging to release anyone detained for demonstrating, compensate the families of those killed in protest-related violence and work with the UN to implement demonstrators' demands.

Allawi also pledged to include demonstrators as he seeks to form his cabinet, which he must do by March 2.

Until it is confirmed by parliament with a vote of confidence, Allawi remains PM-designate.

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