On February 5, as many as two dozen people were killed when protests against the Iraqi government descended into deadly violence in Najaf, a city in southern Iraq. The violent crackdown was led by the "blue hats", supporters of conservative cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who recently switched his allegiance to the government. In a matter of weeks, his supporters, known for the blue baseball hats they wear, have gone from protecting the protesters to using violence against them.
While initial reports put the number of dead in Najaf at around eight, the Iraqi Centre for Documentation of War Crimes said the toll was 23 dead and 182 wounded, based on their network of local medical and other sources.
Sadr was the leader of an anti-American Mahdi Army militia (2003-2008), which he reformed in 2014 as the Saraya Al-Salam (Peace Brigades). When anti-government protests broke out across Iraq in October 2019, members of Saraya Al-Salam, in their blue baseball caps, got involved to protect protesters.
However, in late January al-Sadr's supporters started leaving the protest sites. On February 1, the government named Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the country’s new prime minister. The next day, Al Sadr called on his supporters to clear the roads blocked by protesters and to punish “anyone who impedes the return to work and normal daily life". Since then, the militia loyal to Sadr have led violent crackdowns on protesters in several large Iraqi cities.
Our Observers say that the blue hats have turned into an armed militia, and that its members are quick to use both blades and firearms to brutally disperse protest movements.
“The Blue Helmets try to take control of protest areas using violence”
Ahmad Khalil is a journalist in Najaf. He’s been reporting on the popular uprising since it began in October 2019 and was there during the violent crackdown on February 5.
What happened on the evening of February 5 was a horrible, bloody attack on unarmed civilians. Between 4:30pm and 5pm, Sadr’s supporters came to the Al Ghadir neighbourhood, in the northern part of the city, and tried to infiltrate the group of protesters who were holding a sit-in in Sadrayn Square, which is near the building that houses the Provincial Council. They were trying to get inside the tents and in close contact with the young protesters.
On social media, people said the blue hats were on the one hand claiming that they wanted to protect the participants in the sit-in, but on the other accusing protesters of consuming alcohol.
The protesters refused to let them join the sit-in, because they knew about the blue hats' reputation and they saw that they were armed with batons. More and more people were getting angry about the presence of the blue hats and asked them to leave. What started as loud arguments turned into violence and the situation degenerated very quickly, especially after some members of the militia threw Molotov cocktails at the tents. The tents caught fire and flames spread rapidly across the square. Tear gas canisters were raining down behind behind the burning tents. We could hear gunshots ring out close by – they were being fired by the militia.
Even though they aren’t government forces and don’t have the right to carry weapons, the blue hats are using a new type of powerful, military-grade teargas grenade, which they fire at protesters’ heads and bodies at point-blank range, according to a report by Amnesty International, causing injuries and death. Omar Farhan of the Iraqi Centre for the Documentation of War Crimes told our team that, alongside these potentially deadly grenades, the blue hats are also armed with Kalashnikovs, knives and batons.
The photos and videos that protesters have posted on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram show how the flames and the tear gas create a deadly, out of control situation. Protesters were trying to throw the grenades back at the militia and to protect themselves with trash can lids used as shields.
The official security forces – the police, the army and the gendarmes – surrounded the square but didn’t intervene further, according to Khalil.
Article written by Fatma Ben Hamad.