BAGHDAD: Four Iraqi civilians were shot dead and dozens wounded when Iraqi security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on Saturday in raids on protest camps in Baghdad and the south.
The new offensive to end the protests came after populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr withdrew his support for the anti-government demonstrators. Sadr, who has millions of supporters, had protecting the protesters from attacks by security forces and snipers deployed by Iran-backed militias.
His supporters began withdrawing from sit-ins early on Saturday, and the security forces moved in. There were violent clashes as authorities began removing concrete barriers near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, where demonstrators have camped out for months, and across at least one main bridge over the Tigris River.
Security forces wielding batons chased a group of young protesters, and riot police set fire to large tents used as field clinics to treat wounded demonstrators.
In the southern city of Basra, security forces raided the main anti-government sit-in overnight and deployed in force to stop protesters regrouping. Police arrested at least 16.
In Baghdad, at least one person was killed and more than 30 injured in clashes between police and protesters near Tahrir Square. Another three died and 14 were wounded in the southern city of Nassiriyah, when security forces took control of a bridge occupied for days by demonstrators.
Iraq’s security forces have used tear gas and live fire against mostly peaceful protesters since anti-government unrest broke out in Baghdad on Oct. 1. More than 450 people have died in the violence.
The demonstrators are demanding the removal of Iraq’s corrupt ruling elite, the provision of functioning public services and the end of interference in politics by foreign powers, especially Iran. The initial crackdown on the demonstrators was personally directed by Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.
Sadr had supported the demands of protesters, but stopped short of calling all his followers to join in. Nevertheless, many did. In Basra on Saturday, protesters urged Sadr to reconsider his withdrawal of support, without which they feared attacks by security forces.
One angry young activist in Baghdad accused Sadr of effectively giving his approval to a new crackdown. “When your people started leaving, the riot police came at 3 a.m. and took the whole Ahrar Bridge. Why?” he said.
Pope Francis and Iraqi President Barham Salih agreed after talks at the Vatican on Saturday that Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected. The president also met the Vatican’s two top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, its Foreign Minister.
The talks “focused on the challenges the country currently faces and on the importance of promoting stability and the reconstruction process, encouraging the path of dialogue and the search for suitable solutions in favor of citizens and with respect for national sovereignty,” a Vatican statement said.