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Protests erupt in southern Iraq as man sentenced for tweeting against PMU

Security concerns for southern Iraq have risen following an attempted suicide attack near Karbala and deadly protests in Nasiriyah sparked by a prison sentence for a man accused of insulting security forces.
Mourners accompany the casket of one of the two protesters killed earlier in clashes.

BAGHDAD — Following the sentencing of a young man for allegedly tweeting comments offensive to Iraq’s security forces, protests broke out this week in the southern Shiite-majority city of Nasiriyah in which at least two other young men were killed.

In another area over an hour by road south of Baghdad, suicide attackers a few days before had been thwarted by the security forces. One of the men managed nonetheless to blow himself up, killing two members of the country’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

Both of these incidents may bode ill for the new government and the stability of the country if underlying, long-festering concerns in the southern part of the country are not addressed.

Spokesman for the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces Maj. Gen. Yahya Rasool tweeted on Dec. 6 that the Karbala Operations Command forces had managed to kill another suicide bomber after chasing him following the explosion of the first attacker.

The PMU fighters named Kamal Muhammad al-Zalimi and Hani Atta Obaid were killed during the thwarting of the suicide attack attempt, social media accounts linked to Iran-linked armed factions tweeted.

The location of the attack is significant due to the controversial continued "occupation" — as critics call it — of a large area nearby the PMU as well as its proximity to the Shiite pilgrimage city of Karbala.

Now known as Jurf al-Nasr but previously known as Jurf al-Sakr, the area "occupied" is Sunni-majority but has for years been off-limits to its original residents. 

Jurf al-Nasr is largely under the control of Iran-linked Kataib Hezbollah, which has three brigades within the government-salaried PMU but also an unclear number of fighters operating inside and outside the country and not subject to government control.

The protests this week in Nasiriyah, almost 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Karbala, were sparked by a three-year prison sentence handed down Monday by a Baghdad court to a young man on the basis of a tweet that mocked former PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The tweet in question was found by an Iraqi court to have insulted the government-salaried PMU, parts of which are linked to armed groups close to Iran and operate beyond Iraq’s borders — including IRGC-linked Kataib Hezbollah.

Nasiriyah, where the deadly protests raged for over 24 hours, had been a nerve center of the massive 2019 protests that led to the resignation of the government at that time.

Young men in nearby southern provinces vowed on Wednesday to escalate protests after the young men’s killings.

A source in Nasiriyah told Al-Monitor on Dec. 8 that the situation was calm but that the two young men killed had been shot by the security forces “even though they did not harm public or private property.” He said that the two men, natives to the Shiite-dominant city, were “under age 20,” while at least 15 others had been injured.

A spokesman for the Dhi Qar provincial Health Ministry told Agence France-Presse that "two protesters were shot dead" and 21 had been wounded, including five by gunfire.

The man sentenced for allegedly tweeting offensive remarks about the PMU, Haidar al-Zaidi, denies the charges and claims his account had been hacked.

“Regardless of who posted the Twitter message, the Iraqi justice system should not be used as a tool to suppress peaceful criticism of the authorities or armed actors,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a Dec. 6 statement. “It is a sad reflection on the rule of law in Iraq that an activist like Zaidi gets three years in prison for a Twitter post he says he didn’t write while dozens of officials and armed groups enjoy impunity for killing activists and protesters.”

Zaidi, 20, had been active in the 2019 protests.

During those protests three years before, many in Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite-dominant southern cities blamed Iran-linked factions of the PMU for the hundreds killed and thousands injured in the protests. They now say that no one has been held responsible for their deaths and those injured have not received any compensation.

Near the city of Nasiriyah is the notorious maximum security prison known as al-Hoot, or the Whale, where some of Iraq's most dangerous criminals are detained — including former top-ranked Islamic State (IS) commanders. At least two major Syrian IS commanders have been detained there in recent years.

Hangings also take place at the prison in relative secrecy. Human rights groups have criticized the prison for its human rights violations.

A source in Nasiriyah who cannot be named for security reasons told Al-Monitor, “One of the reasons for the protest is the young man who was sentenced, as well as the rights of the wounded in the previous demonstrations.”

"The new government is not welcome in Nasiriyah, as it is a militia government that killed our children previously. We had a very bitter experience with” those involved in the current government, he said.

The new government in Baghdad took office in late October over a year after elections were held. The delay was caused by protracted political bickering.

The government is led by the Coordination Framework, which contains multiple Iran-aligned parties — including ones linked to armed factions operating at least partially out of government control.

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