BAGHDAD: Iraq’s prime minister on Monday ordered police replace the army in a heavily populated Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad where dozens were killed or wounded in clashes over the weekend, the military said.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi gave the order after a week of violence that gripped Iraq left more than 100 dead and thousands wounded.
The unrest is the most serious challenge facing Iraq, two years after the victory against Islamic State militants. The chaos also comes at a critical time for the government, which has been caught in the middle of increasing U.S.-Iran tensions in the region. Iraq is allied with both countries and hosts thousands of U.S. troops, as well as powerful paramilitary forces allied with Iran.
Monday’s order for the withdrawal of the army from Sadr City appears aimed at calming tensions in the sprawling neighborhood, where populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr enjoys wide support.
The army statement said excessive force was used in Sadr City, adding that officers and soldiers who “carried out these wrong acts” will be made accountable.
Hundreds gathered on side streets near Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb some 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the central Tahrir Square, which has been the destination point of the weeklong rallies though authorities prevented protesters from reaching it.
Iraqi security officials said Monday that 14 protesters were killed and 62 wounded the previous day, many of them in Sadr City.
Baghdad streets were relatively quiet Monday with no protesters seen outside. Tahrir Square looked more like army barracks, with heavy military and police presence making it difficult for protesters to reach the area.
Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged the protesters and the security forces to end the violence while the country’s prime minister has called on the protesters to go home.
Iraq’s national security adviser vowed Monday to fight attempts to “bring down the Iraqi state.” Falih al-Fayadh said an ongoing investigation will prove who was behind the violence in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces.
“We will not let anyone to meddle with the security of our people,” al-Fayadh added.
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