A "massacre" in Nasiriyah in Iraq as Iraqi protests reach two month turning point
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Two months of protest have reached what could be a turning point or crescendo as large movements of Iraqi forces linked to the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and other security units were deployed in the south following the burning of the Iranian consulate in Najaf on Wednesday night. Thursday night brought major clashes in the city of Nasiriyah (الناصرية) with dozens reported killed and hundreds injured.
The clashes on Thursday night, November 28, are considered some of the bloodiest since the protests began in early October. The protests across Baghdad and southern Iraq increased on October 25 and have continued throughout November. Protesters have targeted symbols of Iran in Iraq throughout the demonstrations, including burning the outside wall of the Iranian consulate in Karbala on Sunday, November 3. A similar but smaller "massacre" took place in late October when up to 14 were reported killed in Karbala during clashes. The clashes in Karbala on October 28, November 3 and November 13, in the Shi'ite holy city, are part of the network of clashes in symbolic and important Shi'ite cities in southern Iraq. Iraq has formed various "crisis cells" to deal with the latest developments but different narratives and overlapping security and militia forces are fueling unrest while protesters' demands are not being answers. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the largest political party, has called on the government to resign. The Prime Minister's officer reportedly offered parliament his resignation on November 29.
Nasiriyah was a center of clashes on November 27-28 in which up to 25 were killed and a curfew imposed. To reduce criticism after the killings, the Prime Minister's office of Adel Abdul Mahdi reportedly sought to fire Lt. Gen. Jamil al-Shammari (جميل الشمري), who was supposed to be overseeing operations in Dhi Qar province. There were protests in nearby Kut, Hillah and Amara. The governor of Dhi Qar, Adel al-Dukhaili (عادل الدخيلي), threatened to resign.
On the diplomatic front Iraq's foreign minister has apologized to his Iranian counterpart for the burning of the consulate. For Iran this is an important issue and IRNA has a whole section of its website devoted to the attack.
The burning of the Iranian consulate set off several important reactions. Ayatollah Ali Sistani lives near the Imam Ali shrine in the city. Rumors spread online suggested that the attack on the consulate was a kind of "false flag." For instance Hayder al-Khoei noted that "chatter in Najaf today that the attack on the Iranian consulate was instigated by militiamen to embarrass Ayatollah Sistani (who supports the 'legitimate demands of peaceful protesters') and create wedge within movement. Other activists have condemned the attack." Other accounts claimed militiamen or government forces had attacked the consulate to discredit the protesters.
Najaf November 27
The evening that Iran's consulate was burned in Najaf, members of the PMU, especially Asaib Ahl al-Haq, stepped forward to show support for Sistani as if he had been targeted. This led to confusion. The protesters said that they condemned the violence and said they "are the sons of the Marja'iyya and their protectors." The Marjiyah (Marja'iyya) or senior religious leadership in Najaf. The protesters claimed they were defending the religious authorities at the same time the PMU claimed it was stepping in to do the same.
The Najaf Protest Coordination Committee claimed that "outside groups stormed & set fire to Iranian Consulate." On November 28 Security Forces withdrew from Consulate after fifty were injured. PMU Imam Ali and Abbas Fighting Divisions imposed security on the old city. Fires were put out." Armored vehicles were seen being sent south, linked to the Abbas unit. Asaib Ahl Al-Haq's Qais Khazali tweeted support for Sistani. The Abbas Combat Division is close to Sistani and has units in Karbala. A separate Imam Ali PMU unit has traditionally drawn strength from Najaf.
On November 28 Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy of the PMU and leader of Kataib Hezbollah indicated that the PMU would answer to Sistani's orders from Najaf. He also tried to pose as if the PMU was defending Sistani from threats by protesters. It was Sistani's 2014 Fatwa that had created the PMU in the first place but Sistani has generally been sympathetic to the protests.
Nasiriyah November 28
Nasiriyah had seen clashes in the build up to the November 28 shootings. As reported by Shelly Kittleson at Al-Monitor, "The situation escalated in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar Nov. 17, with security forces shooting live ammunition to disperse protesters.
Dozens have lost their lives in Nasiriyah, Al-Monitor learned during a visit to the city Nov. 9-10. Several activists said they are restricting their movements due to fear of arrest."
A Shi'ite endowment and a government office were burned on November 25 and dozens of secuirty forces were reported injured across Dhi Qar province.. While protests affected Basra further south, police were on alert. The government said a high level delegation would come to t he city. An MP's house was burned. On November 27, amid photos showing riot police in Karbala throwing molotov cocktails at protesters, the Ministry of Interior ordered police withdrawn from Nasiriyah.
In Nasiriyah the additional security forces deployed between the 237 and 28th, were units of the Rapid Reaction Force (قوات الرد السريع) or ERD linked to Badr. By the evening of the 27th and morning of the 28th protesters said they suffered live fire from the ERD, particularly near the headquarters near Olive (Zaytoun) bridge. In response they burned the ERD headquarters.
They were filmed shooting at protesters on November 28. Throughout Iraq the level of gunfire was seen as shocking. "The size of the shooting is as frightening and terrifying as a battlefield," wrote Omar Habeeb. Hundreds of tweets showed the same video of the Rapid Reaction shootings. Ali Baroodi compared the willingness to shoot at protests with the failures of the government to defend Mosul in 2014. "If this amount of shooting was fired near the 3rd bridge in Mosul back in June 2014, the city wouldn't have fallen to ISIS. What's all this for? Who are those exactly? Are they the protectors of our chastity as they call themselves? Are they aliens? Are they humans at all?"
"These Badr SWAT guys are a lot more aggressive maneuvering against unarmed civs that they were against ISIS. Wish they had moved like that in 2014," noted Michael Knights. Aram Shabanian wrote "I'm pretty sure it's Federal Police/Emergency Response Brigade. The uniform and humvee colors are correct and I saw them deploying toward the south about 12-15 hours ago." The commentator 'Tom Cat' who covers Iraqi security issues wrote "what happened in Nasiriyah is inexcusable."
Another writer noted "this is the third party killing us," a reference to the claims by the government that a "third party" was involved in killing protesters over the last months. In Lebanon, where there are also protests, the video of the shootings was also examined. A still of the video shows that the ERD were trying to retreat across the river when they had used live fire on protesters in the video. Violence from the protesters was reported, an RPG was fired at a police headquarters, for instance.
THE STORY of the "third party (الطرف الثالث)" is one that has gained traction throughout November. It began with claims by government officials, including at the Defense Ministry, that alleged that deadly tear gas canisters used to kill protesters had not been imported by the government. This was the official government narrative from November 15 to 28. Even Khazali jumped on the "third party" bandwagon. However, since the beginning of the protests, other accounts have noted that the third party is in fact the PMU militias and snipers linked to Badr, to Saraya Khorasani and Iran. Our report had examined this in October. The use of deadly force against protesters has also been revealed in human rights reports. Amnesty International examined the background of the grenades used to kill protesters on October 31. On November 14 the government claimed they hadn't imported the grenades from Iran.
Video showed the Rapid Reaction Force near a bridge in the city and another video showed them shooting at crowds. Mustafa Hasan tweeted that the video of the shooting by the Rapid Reaction Force showed the murder of the sons of Nasiriyah. A photo showed one of the vehicles.
The forces allegedly fired on the protesters are part of a large series of clashes. Protesters had taken over areas near the Olive and Al-Nasr bridges in the city. They had blocked these before in mid-November. Shammari sent forces to clear the protest tents. Live fire was used. In response protesters attacked the headquarters of the Rapid Reaction Force in the city. The situation was fluid amid rumors that rot police had been withdrawn and that the Rapid Reaction Force had occupied a building that was then burned by protesters. Locals called the killings a massacre. Reports noted that protesters targeted a Badr office in Najaf and there were clashes in Basra. Up top eight police cards were also burned in Nasiriyah.
A list of those killed in Nasiriyah was published: "Hayder Ali, 27 Omar Sadoun, 21 Amir Madloul, 17 Hayder Saad, 20 Ahmed Hussain, 20 Salam Mohammed, 22 Abbas Majid, 18 Karar Sarai, 20 Omar Kadhim, 33 Hamza Kamil, 19 Montadhar Ahmad Ali Adil Ali Abdul Amir, 27 Ahmad Hamza, 21 Mustafa Ahmad, 19, Hussain Zyud, 32 Moqtada Maytham, 16 Ahmed Ridha, Hamid Ali Amjad Hadi, 35 Ali Sayer, 25 Firas Ramidh." A hospital director whose name was given as Dr. Aws al-Mohammadawi (أوس المحمداوي), said that they had received 25 victims, but it was not clear if they were wounded or also deceased.
Accounts of the clashes in Nasiriyah paint a picture of a combination of force used by the Rapid Reaction Force and those linked to Badr.
وأضاف أن المتظاهرين تمكنوا منذ صباح الخميس من السيطرة على جسر الزيتون وسط الناصرية، وأضرموا النيران في مقر قوات الرد السريع (التي تشكل مليشيات بدر غالبية عناصرها)"، فيما استمرت مليشيات الحشد في استهداف المتظاهرين بالرصاص الحي.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq was also accused of suppressing protesters. Since late October AAH has been angered by protesters targeting their party offices in southern Iraq. For instance a member of AAH named Wisam al-Alawi was killed on October 25 when Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s office in Misan had been attacked by protesters. Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri attended the funeral alongside Qais Khazali, head of AAH.
Rumors continue to be pushed by media relating to plots against Sistani and the role of the army and various tribes and factions. It is in the interests of the various governments and factions to push different narratives. For Iran the narrative is that there is instability in Iraq driven by a "third force," which Iran has blamed on the US, Israel and other powers, including foreign TV channels in the Arabic world. For instance Iraq's Ministry of Communications has warned 17 media organizations (Al-Arabiya, Al-Hadath, Al-Sumariya, Al-Hurra, Sky News Arabia, etc; several have been closed as a result or moved to the Kurdistan Region). Iran has blamed the Gulf countries for fanning the flames. Iran's allies in Iraq, particularly the Fatah Alliance and the PMU, agree with this assessment.
It is in the interests of others to create more complex rumors about false flag attacks and Sistani's life being threatened. For instance one website pushed a claim that former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was behind the attack on Iran's consulate. Meanwhile media more closely linked to the Gulf have details about the role of the PMU and Iran in suppressing the protests. Al-Ain carries reports about the dismissal of the head of the Crises Cell in Dhi Qar as well as claims that IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani ( قاسم سليماني) is in Baghdad as the IRGC plans to end the protests.
Information is a key part of the protests and attempts to counter them. Iraq tried to shut down the internet during the early phase of the protests (Iran would do the same to stop protests on November 16 from spreading). Critical foreign Arabic media have targeted in early October by masked men and then again in November to be shut down. Journalists have bee targeted as well.
The multiple layers of competing groups act against the government being able to control the protests. For instance in Baghdad the protesters have taken over areas near Tahrir square and laid siege to bridges to the Green Zone. In other places PMU militias or snipers have shot protests but in some places local police or soldiers appeared to sympathize with them. Sadr and Sistani, seeking to preserve their role and influence, have hedged. In Sunni Arab areas there have been few protests and the Kurdistan region has remained quiet as its leadership negotiates budgets with Baghdad. Nevertheless the killings in Nasiriyah and the attack in Najaf brought armored vehicles into the streets and momentarily caused a crises that included both the protesters and PMU seeking to claim the mantle of Iraq and protecting key institutions from threats.
Results and aftermath
Jamil al-Shammari, who was also in charge of Basra Operations Command was reported replaced by the 9th Armored Division commander on November 29. The replacement was also given as Lt. Gen. Saad Harbieh of Joint Operations Forward in Kirkuk, it was not clear if this is also the same person commanding the 9th. The Dhi Qar governor was involved in encouraging Shammari's removal. He was summoned to Baghdad and his house attacked in Diwaniyah. There are calls for trials for those who used live ammunition. However up to 10 more protesters were shot in Najaf on November 28 and more than a dozen security forces injured in Karbala, showing the situation was far from calm. Shammari blamed elements of the ERD for violating their own instructions.
Tribal politics have played into the clashes near Nasiriyah and Dhi Qar province. Tribes opposed the attacks on protesters and armed tribesmen were seen on roads leading tot he city. The tribes mentioned were the Badur and Al-Ghazi tribe.
Local police politics are also involved. Not only did the governor of the province oppose the ERD's actions but the local police chief, Mohammed Zidan also did, according to reports.
The armored vehicles sent to protect Sistani were a show of force by units loyal to him. All the players rallied around Sistani claiming to be fighting on his behalf. This shows the distinction between attacks on Iranian-backed units and Iranian symbols, compared to the local Shi'ite leadership.
The leadership and purpose of the "Crisis Cells" for the southern provinces is unclear. They form yet another layer in an already complex security space that involves police, riot police, federal police, SWAT, the army, ISOF, ERD, Badr and various elements of the PMU, Khorasani, tribes and protesters. For instance shootings in Najaf on November 28 were blamed on the SWAT team present. Many of the army, ISOF and CTS units show respect for the protesters and have not been involved in suppressing them.
Outside of the towns security remains in the countryside and at vital installations. Even though major roads have sometimes been blocked and the port south of Basra, the security prison at al-Hoot (Hout) was secured by the ICTS.
The police commander of Dhi Qar said he would resign if protesters relented from continuing protests at the police headquarters. Tribes were asked to mediate but more than 50 were wounded on Friday, November 29.
The events in Karbala, Najaf and Nasiriyah show the extent of lack of control by the government as well as the ability of local leaders and power structures to demand some accountability. This is largely informal, including pressure on the ground and on social media. It also shows how rumors can circulate and how different media in Iran or the Gulf interpret the protests. Although there has been an element of the protests that pitted protesters against Iranian-linked militias, and snipers against protesters, the other side of the protests is that the government or Iranian elements have not been able to gain control. This is due to a variety of factors, including the different PMU factions and lack of coordination among security forces and a vacuum of leadership in Iraq. Nevertheless elements of the authorities have sought various means to crackdown, including closing the internet, targeting foreign media, and using live fire and tear gas grenades. This does not seem like a shadowy "third force" but parts of the government preferring plausible deniability from other parts with advice from Tehran or parts of the PMU.
Read our other exclusive reports on the Baghdad protests
November 26: Photo essay from Baghdad by Adam Lucente
November 7: A doctor describes the protests By KB
October 31: Increasing evidence of Iran's role
October 29: Sources close to PMU reveal crackdown
October 7: Testimony from the frontline By KB
October 5: Reactions of Iraqi political leaders
October 4: Reactions in Baghdad, protesters say that this Friday there will be blood by KB