Iraqis have gathered to mourn a prominent activist shot dead in the latest violent episode in anti-government demonstrations in which more than 450 people have died.
Hundreds joined Fahem al-Tai’s funeral procession on Monday, hours after the 53-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting in Iraq’s shrine city of Karbala while returning home from protests late on Sunday.
“We will not forget our martyrs,” read one sign carried by a tearful protester.
Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, and its Shia-majority south have been gripped by more than two months of rallies against corruption, poor public services and unemployment. Demonstrators also want a complete overhaul of the political system installed after the 2003 US invasion of the country, where power is apportioned among religious and ethnic groups.
Widespread protests are expected on Tuesday, the second anniversary of Iraq’s announced the defeat of the ISIL (or ISIS).
Activists have called for large-scale marches from other cities towards Baghdad but paramilitary leaders have warned such protests would be “ruinous”.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is one of the most powerful groups in Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi security force (also known as the PMF), a network of Iran-backed armed groups officially integrated into the Iraqi state security forces.
Hashd chief Faleh al-Fayyadh over the weekend ordered the factions to stay away from rallies.
It initially backed the government over protests but later switched sides, although protesters fear Hashd fighters’ presence at rallies could derail their anti-establishment movement.
Demonstrators are seeking a comeback after an attack on a major Baghdad protest site left 22 protesters and three police officers dead, sparking nationwide outrage.
The British, French and German ambassadors to Iraq condemned the violence in a meeting with caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned on December 1.
“No armed group should be able to operate outside of the control of the state,” the envoys said in a statement, urging the government to “urgently investigate”.
The envoys also pressed the government to implement its recent order that the Hashd “stay away from protest locations”.
In response, Iraq’s foreign ministry on Monday summoned all three ambassadors, as well as their Canadian counterpart, who had similarly condemned the violence.
The ministry said their comments were an “unacceptable intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs”.
A diplomatic source told the AFP news agency that the envoys were “not surprised” at having been summoned, particularly after Abdul Mahdi had defended his government in response to their criticism at the earlier meeting.
In addition to those killed, dozens of protesters went missing after the attack on the parking complex and have yet to resurface, their relatives told AFP.
Demonstrators have for weeks complained of being monitored, threatened and harassed in an intimidation campaign they say is aimed at blunting their movement.
Since October 1, the youth-led rallies have accused the ruling class both of being inept and corrupt and of being heavily influenced by neighbouring Iran.
Baghdad has close ties with both Tehran and Iran’s arch foe Washington, which led the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein.
Some 5,200 US troops are still based across Iraq and have faced a spike in rocket attacks on their positions.
The latest in the early hours of Monday saw four rockets slam into an Iraqi base that hosts a small contingent of US forces next to Baghdad International Airport.
Six Iraqi troops were wounded, according to the military. No US forces were wounded.
While there have been no claims of responsibility, US defence officials have blamed several of the attacks on Iran-backed factions in Iraq.