The heads of powerful Iraqi paramilitary factions threatened they would take “revenge” on Saturday after their offices in the south of the country were torched during deadly protests.
Demonstrators set fire to dozens of government buildings and offices belonging to the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias better known as Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force across southern cities late Friday.
In Missan province, the headquarters of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the PMU militias, was torched and a leading commander of the group reportedly killed.
Wissam al-Alyawi was later pronounced dead by the group, after footage circulated online showing him writhing in an ambulance as a crowd of men tried to break into it.
Asaib chief Qais al-Khazaali was in Baghdad on Saturday for the funeral procession of Alyawi and his brother Issam, apparently killed in the same incident.
“His blood is on America and Israel’s hands, but I will take revenge - many times over,” Khazaali told mourners, holding back tears as he stood next to their wailing mother.
“This blood is proof to all our people of the size of the conspiracy that is targeting us,” he said.
Dozens of PMUs fighters were gathered in military fatigues for the procession in central Baghdad, just a few districts south of where protests were taking place in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
Another paramilitary force, Saraya al-Salam, had also been spotted in Baghdad in recent days after their leader Moqtada al-Sadr threw his weight behind the demonstrations.
The PMUs was founded in 2014 to fight ISIS but its factions have since been ordered to incorporate into the state security services.
The US and Israel fear some of the factions are too closely tied to Iran, their regional foe.
The Badr Organization, a powerful Iranian-backed armed group whose offices were set alight in the southern city of Diwaniyah, also blamed Israel and the United States for Alyawi’s death.
“They don’t want a stable Iraq. They want to pull it into discord and chaos,” said its head Hadi al-Ameri, who also attended the funeral.
And Harakat Nujaba, an Iraqi paramilitary faction close to Iran, warned protesters to stay peaceful. “Take a careful look, and let us be united,” it said in an online statement.
On Saturday, three people died in the southern city of Nasiriyah as they tried to torch a local official’s home, a police source told AFP, and three protesters also died in Baghdad, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
The violence came a day after 42 protesters died from live rounds, tear gas canisters or while torching government buildings or PMUs offices in the south.
The storming of those buildings marks a new phase in the south, and authorities imposed strict curfews that prevented renewed protests on Saturday in most of those cities.
There have been no such incidents so far in the capital, where hundreds of protesters were still gathering.
The United Nations on Saturday said it was “tragic” to see renewed violence but also warned against “armed spoilers.”
“Armed entities sabotaging the peaceful demonstrations, eroding the government’s credibility and ability to act, cannot be tolerated,” said the UN top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.