One of the main anti-government protesters in Nasiriya, Mohammad al-Khayyat, accused the Sadrists of setting fire to tents erected by his fellow protesters and shooting at them.
“Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence will occur, ”Khayyat told AFP.
Medical sources told AFP that the violence left four people dead and 51 injured, nine of whom were shot.
Al-Sadr supporters also gathered in Tahrir Square in Baghdad – once the epicenter of mass anti-government protests – to show their support for the Shiite leader whose bloc holds a sizable majority in parliament.
Iraq is facing its most severe fiscal crisis in decades after the oil price collapse earlier this year and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the government unable to pay public sector wages to time.
The sadristist movement had called for protests to support reform of what it says is a corrupt state, but its populist leader has also taken action ahead of next year’s federal election in June.
In a tweet this week, al-Sadr said he expected big victories for his party and that he would push for the next prime minister to join the sadrist movement for the first time.
His supporters called for a protest to support the leader’s call for mass participation in the vote.
Most supporters stood unmasked in the plaza, chanting, “Yes, yes for our leader,” in support of the hitman leader as Iraq remains a country at high risk for coronavirus infection. The crowd then stood side by side for Friday prayers at noon.
Simona Foltyn of Al Jazeera, reporting from Baghdad, said the mass rally shows the political muscle and organizational capacities that supporters of al-Sadr are able to muster.
“And that contrasts sharply with the anti-government protest movement that demonstrated here in Tahrir Square until just a few weeks ago,” said Foltyn, reporting from Tahrir Square.
“They claimed that they had been infiltrated by parties like the Sadrist movement and that their movement had been essentially hijacked,” she said.
“This rally here leaves no doubt as to who emerged victorious after months of anti-government protests,” she added.
Observers see the protest as a show of al-Sadr’s courage meant to send a message to other political blocs that in the streets of Iraq the Muslim leader still carries weight.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has called for elections to be held next June, a year earlier than expected.
This was one of the main demands of the anti-government protesters who brought Iraqi streets to a standstill when tens of thousands protested last October.
The elections will be held under a new law approved by lawmakers this year that will theoretically allow more independent candidates to run.
The Iraqi electoral commission said it was ready to hold an early election if the government allocated a budget for the vote.