In the southern town of Nasiriya, anti-government activists accused Sadrists of shooting them and torching their tents at their main gathering place in Habboubi Square.
“Another massacre took place today… against peaceful protesters using live ammunition. We ask the Sadrist and Sayyed Moqtada movement [al-Sadr] to end these conflicts and stop their attacks on peaceful protesters, ”said Mohannad al-Mansour, an anti-government protester.
The clashes continued into the night, with medics reporting a total of six dead on Saturday morning – five of them from gunfire – and at least 60 injured.
But on Saturday morning, anti-government protesters were already back in the square to rebuild their camp, an AFP journalist said.
Authorities sacked the town’s police chief, opened an investigation into the events and imposed a nighttime curfew on Nasiriya.
Other towns have also introduced security measures, with Kut and Amara further north establishing new restrictions on movement.
Earlier Friday, thousands of Sadrists gathered in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and other southern provinces to show their support for the influential religious leader ahead of elections slated for June next year.
Al-Sadr, who heads the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament, said he expects his movement to win a majority of seats.
A long-time opponent of the United States, he also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq.
Anti-government protest movement
Nasiriya was a crucial hub for the protest movement that erupted in October 2019 against a government seen by protesters as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighboring Iran.
It was also the site of one of the bloodiest incidents in the uprising, when more than three dozen people died in violence linked to the protests on November 28 last year.
These deaths sparked outrage across Iraq and led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
Anti-government protests erupted in October 2019 and continued for several months, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demanding jobs, services and the removal of the ruling elite. Nearly 500 people were killed.
Last month, Iraqi security forces cleared sit-in tents in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, which have become a symbol of anti-government protests during months of mass unrest last year.
Mahdi’s successor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has sought to reach out to protesters and set June 2021 as the date for early elections – a major demand from the youth-dominated movement.