NAJAF - Seven people were shot dead on Wednesday in Iraq's shrine city of Najaf after supporters of powerful cleric Moqtada Sadr raided an anti-government protest camp, medics said.
It marked the bloodiest episode yet in the escalating tensions between Sadr, a militiaman-turned-politician with a cult-like following across Iraq, and decentralised rallies that have demanded regime change since October.
Sadr had initially backed the demonstrations but split with them suddenly this weekend, endorsing Mohammad Allawi as the country's new prime minister designate.
The core protest movement sees Allawi, a 65-year-old ex-minister, as being too close to the political elite.
Tensions between the two camps have already boiled over, with Sadr supporters - typically identified by blue caps - storming squares and harassing rival demonstrators, who have taken up chants against the cleric.
On Wednesday, Sadr supporters flooded the main anti-regime tent city in Najaf, witnesses said, and clashes erupted before security forces intervened to separate the two sides.
Seven anti-government demonstrators were killed by bullets to the head or chest, medics in the city said, and dozens more were wounded.
In the melee, tents where protesters had slept for weeks as part of their sit-ins were burned down.
The events prompted solidarity rallies across other protest-hit cities, with a march in Baghdad's Tahrir Square decrying the bloodshed.
Earlier in the day in Diwaniyah, another protest hotspot, hundreds took to the streets to condemn Sadr and his supporters for turning against the movement, AFP's correspondent there reported.
- 'Brutality in the streets' -
Violence broke out earlier this week in the southern city of Hilla, where one protester was stabbed to death after Sadrists attacked an anti-government rally there.
Sadr then ostensibly tried to calm the tensions, urging his followers through a Twitter post to focus solely on making sure schools, roads and government buildings shut by months of protests would reopen.
"The 'blue hats' have a duty to peacefully secure schools and service centres, not to defend me or suppress the voices that chant against me," he said.
He urged his supporters to work with security forces but demonstrators have criticised police for failing to act quickly enough to save lives in Najaf.
"It's very sad to see guys get killed under the nose of security forces who just played the role of the bystander," said protester Mohammad Hussein.
He spoke to AFP in the southern city of Nasiriyah, where crowds at the main rally camp in Habbubi Square chanted in support of fellow protesters in Najaf.
Asaad al-Naseri, a Shiite cleric in Nasiriyah who defected last month from the Sadrist movement, also slammed security forces in a Twitter post.
"What law or doctrine permits bloodshed with such brutality in the streets? Where are the security forces when it comes to what is happening in Najaf?" he wrote.
- PM-designate meets protesters -
Even PM-designate Allawi pressured the outgoing government, saying: "The painful events taking place now push me to ask my brothers in the current government to fullfil their tasks by protecting the protesters."
Allawi was appointed on February 1 to succeed Adel Abdel Mahdi, who resigned in December but stayed on in a caretaker role.
When he announced his candidacy, Allawi extended a hand to the protesters and urged them to keep up their rallies.
He has since met with representatives of the movement, pledging to release anyone detained for demonstrating, compensate the families of those killed in protest-related violence and work with the United Nations to implement demonstrators' demands.
Allawi, 65, served as communications minister twice since the US-led invasion of 2003 but also stepped down twice, citing corruption in the government.
Rooting out graft in Iraq - the 16th most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International - has been a key demand of protesters.
Allawi has until March 2 to form his government, which will be subject to a vote of confidence by parliament.
The PM-designate also told protesters that up to two ministers in his cabinet would be activists themselves and that demonstrators could have a say in up to five ministerial nominations, according to Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashemi, who attended meetings with protest representatives.