Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Tribal fighters secure ISIS prisons amid chaos in southern Iraq

Tribal leaders say they fear ISIS prisoners may take advantage of unrest to escape

Southern Iraqi tribal fighters are posted around a prison where ISIS detainees are being held, over fears that the chaos of mass rallies could be used to free the militants, clan elders say.

Tribal sheikh Natham Rumayad claimed unidentified “infiltrators” were entering the Nasiriyah area, which has been rocked by a crackdown on demonstrations in recent days.

Sheikh Rumayad said tribal militias set up checkpoints on the major roads towards the city of Nasiriyah to check those entering the area and were guarding Al Hoot prison.

“We have communication with the police commanders and security commanders in the province,” he told The National.

“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.”

Sheikh Rumayad did not specify who the “infiltrators” were but said some were sparking much of the violence at recent protests.

Baghdad and southern Iraq have been rocked by weeks of demonstrations against corruption and poor public services, which led on Sunday to Parliament accepting prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation two days earlier.

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 tear gas canisters at head height, killing several protesters.

On Thursday, in the worst episode of violence since protests began at the start of October, 29 people were killed when security forces opened fire on protesters occupying a bridge in Nasiriyah. Local sources put the death toll closer to 45.

The next day, armed men roved the streets of the city and witnesses reported hearing gunfire.

Into the volatile situation stepped the local tribes.

In southern Iraq, major tribes wield significant power. They 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 the militias were 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 helping to clear the streets, sweeping away ash from 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.

But tribal authorities and civilian activists intervened and negotiated with the police, who agreed not to shoot at protesters while the crowd agreed not to burn down 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 the government,” Sheikh Mohamed Al Tama, of the Hatim tribe, told The National.

On Sunday, magistrates in Nasiriyah's province of Dhi Qar issued an arrest warrant for Gen Jamil Al Shammari, accusing him 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.

“Four 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 said: “We demand a civil trial of Jamil Al Shammari."

The general is well known in the south of Iraq, having led a crackdown on protests in the coastal city of Basra in 2018 that killed dozens.

In response to the violence, then 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, which has killed hundreds and wounded thousands.

Meanwhile, a court in Kut, 170 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 on November 2.

Protesters in Nasiriyah who spoke to The National welcomed the intervention of the clans.

“The tribes have a pivotal role in Nasiriyah," one protester said. "We are a tribal society. There is no one who does not need his tribe.

“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].”

Muqtada Jabar, 28, stood in the centre of the demonstrations in Nasiriyah’s Haboubiya Square, surrounded by a colourful array of tribal flags.

He was grateful that the tribes had come to the protests, but said 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," Mr Jabar said. "They were very late, I’m sorry to say."

He said he lost friends in the violence last Thursday, including Mostafa Abdul Sada, 22, who was killed with others when security forces stormed the city’s Zeytouna Bridge.

“His tribe has lost five members as of now, all of Nasiriyah tribes have victims,” said Mr Jabar. “All of those who have lost blood demand their dignity.”

Updated: December 3, 2019 05:30 PM

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