Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged his followers on Sunday to help security forces clear roads blocked during months of sit-in protests, calling for a return to normal life after the designation of a new prime minister.
Sadr, who had alternately sided with the anti-government protesters and the Iran-backed political groups they reject, urged his unarmed supporters known as “blue hats” to work with authorities to ensure schools and businesses can operate normally again.
Protests broke out immediately in Baghdad and several southern cities on Saturday night after President Barham Salih named Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as prime minister in an effort to end the political unrest.
On Sunday, thousands gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir square, where the main protest camp in the capital is located, to reject the move. They banged drums and chanted against Allawi and Sadr, saying “Allawi is rejected and so are his parties”.
In a message issued on Twitter, Sadr said “I advise the security forces to stop anyone from cutting off roads and the ministry of education should punish those who obstruct regular working hours, be they students, teachers or others”.
Some of his followers appeared to have helped already to clear out protest areas in Tahrir Square overnight, a Reuters reporter said.
Hours before Allawi’s appointment, the blue hats, armed with batons, attacked a skeleton building in Tahrir Square, known as the Turkish Restaurant, that demonstrators have occupied since October.
The building was mostly empty on Sunday and the blue hats stood guard, occupying its gates and pacing with walkie-talkies outside it.