Iraqi protesters face off against cleric’s followers

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Anti-government demonstrators faced off against followers of influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in protest squares across Iraq Tuesday, a day after one demonstrator was killed in a clash between the two sides.

Al-Sadr, an enigmatic militiaman-turned-politician, backed the anti-government rallies when they erupted in October but has split with other demonstrators over the nomination of Mohammad Allawi as prime minister.

The cleric endorsed Allawi while other protesters rejected him, saying he was too close to the ruling elite they had been demonstrating against for four months.

In the southern city of Diwaniyah on Tuesday, the rift escalated into a fistfight between young anti-regime demonstrators and Sadr backers, recognizable by their signature blue head caps, an AFP correspondent said.

Police intervened to separate the two camps but the young protesters broke into chants against al-Sadr, Iraqi authorities as well as Iran, accused by demonstrators of backing the government’s crackdown against them.

Also in Diwaniyah, security forces could be seen outside schools and government offices in an attempt to ensure they reopened fully after sit-ins had forced them to shut.

It came after the interior ministry late Monday said it had ordered reinforcements to schools, and a few students could be seen trickling in the following morning.

Hundreds of students refused to go back to class, however, marching through the main anti-government protest camp with Iraqi flags and a banner that read, “Protest March for Diwaniyah High Schools.”

In Nasiriyah, too, all schools had reopened after police deployed, according to the education directorate’s press chief Halim al-Hossayni.

But students took to the streets there as well to insist on keeping up their protests.

“We’re determined to pursue our peaceful movement in Habbubi square, because we want a homeland free of corruption and sectarian people,” said student Hamad Ali.

Tensions have been high in protest squares in recent days between youths furious at Allawi’s nomination and Sadrists.

On Monday, a demonstrator was stabbed to death and three others wounded after men in blue caps attacked an anti-regime rally, medics and security sources said.

Allawi, 65, was nominated on February 1 after two months of political stalemate over who would replace ex-premier Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in December.

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