BAGHDAD – Iraq cracked down on anti-government protesters who have been occupying key public squares for months, leaving four demonstrators dead Saturday in a country reeling from political turmoil and violence.
Security forces set fire to protesters' tents in southern Iraq and reopened public areas in Baghdad just hours after a powerful Shiite cleric dealt a major blow to the movement by withdrawing his support, prompting his followers to leave the encampments.
Security forces fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse protesters in an operation to clear two squares in Baghdad, killing one and wounding 44, medical and security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations.
In response, protesters called for more people to take to the streets.
Three protesters were shot dead in the southern city of Nasiriyah after a day of altercations between protesters and security forces on a highway connecting the province to oil-rich Basra in the south.
Activists said the presence of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers and his militia group had shielded the protesters. With that cover gone, many in the 4-month-old movement feared the worst.
Al-Sadr withdrew support after tens of thousands of his followers staged a separate anti-U.S. rally Friday in a nearby Baghdad neighborhood, which most anti-government demonstrators didn't attend. A spokesperson for the cleric said the protesters insulted those participating in the anti-U.S. rally and even obstructed access to the one in southern Iraq.
The succession of events come during a political clash over naming the next prime minister, and they sent a clear message to elites: Iraq's streets were al-Sadr's domain.
“He is reclaiming the mantle of populist leader with a popular base able to mobilize large crowds,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.
In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-government protest movement in Baghdad, protesters said they were fearful of what would come next.
“We are all alone now,” said Mustafa, 24, who asked that his full name not be used because he feared reprisals.
The demonstrations have been critical of government corruption, high unemployment and Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Crackdowns by security forces have killed at least 500 protesters since Oct. 1.
Iraq also has been roiled by U.S.-Iran tensions that reached fever pitch when an American drone strike this month killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad's airport.
Al-Sadr said he thought the protesters he broke with were “supporters of me and of Iraq.”
“I am expressing my disappointment and my regret toward all those who doubted me among the Tahrir Square protesters,” he said in a tweet Friday evening. He also accused them of being “foreign paid tools.”
But spokesperson Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi said al-Sadr's followers “will be neutral, not with them or against them."
The unrest after al-Sadr's followers packed up their tents and the calm of his anti-U.S. rally underscored the cleric's ability to manipulate the street during a critical time in Iraqi politics, analysts said.
Political blocs have yet to agree on a consensus candidate to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in December amid pressure from protests.
“For him, it's about political capital and relevance,” said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of the Bayan Center, a Baghdad-based think tank.
Al-Sadr, who's Sairoon party won the largest number of seats in the May 2018 federal election, has rejected every proposed candidate put forward by rival bloc Fatah. His show of force on the street is one way to ensure the next premier brings a pro-Sadrist agenda to government, analysts said.
“Al-Sadr has shown that he can bring large numbers to the street — by asking his supporters to withdraw yesterday night is showing that he is the force behind the protests and can put an end to them if necessary," Jiyad said.
Following al-Sadr's decision Friday, riot police set fire to a protest camp early Saturday in a central square in the southern city of Basra, two activists said.
“The protest square is now controlled (by the security forces), after they used force,” activist Nakeeb Lueibi said. “This is considered a betrayal by the al-Sadr bloc. ... There will be no peace after what has happened in Basra last night.”
In Baghdad, key squares and roads that had been a focal point of protest violence reopened for vehicle access, according to a statement from the Baghdad Operations Command. That included the vital Mohammed al-Qasim highway, Tayaran Square and al-Nidhal Street.
Ahrar Bridge, which had been partly occupied by protesters, also reopened, and concrete blocs were removed in al-Khilani Square.
Protesters feared security forces would enter Tahrir Square.
“(Al-Sadr's statement) gave the green light for the government to suppress the demonstrations,” said Husanien Ali, a 35-year-old protester.
Others said they would remain resilient.
“We called for more people to join us in Tahrir,” said Noor, a protester who only gave her last name because she feared reprisal. “We are rebuilding the tents.”
Protesters continued to occupy bridges leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed from Baghdad.