BAGHDAD – Iraqi security forces fired on protest camps across the country Saturday as a leading cleric withdrew support for the months-old movement, raising the prospect of greater violence and bloodshed.
In the capital, Baghdad, an early morning assault with tear gas and bullets forced protesters from their positions and sent ripples of fear through a central square. In the southern cities of Basra, Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, police burned tents and shot at fleeing crowds.
Since beginning in October, Iraq’s protests have emerged as the largest anti-establishment movement in the country’s history, already toppling a government as they call for an end to corruption and foreign influence. At least 500 demonstrators have been killed since the protests began, while thousands more have been maimed or otherwise wounded.
Saturday’s clashes began hours after what may turn out to be a seminal intervention by Moqtada al-Sadr, a cleric revered by many and whose followers have been among the uprising’s foot soldiers. In a tweet late Friday, he expressed “disappointment and regret” at the protesters and accused them of being the “paid tools” of foreign powers.
Many of the protesters packed up and left, some in tears. In Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, a young man begged fellow protesters for forgiveness, telling them that he did not want to leave, but felt he had no choice.
At least six people were killed and scores were wounded in the violence, medical sources said. In Baghdad, authorities dismantled concrete barricades and announced that key squares and roads were now open for vehicle access.
Sadr’s U-turn followed a massive rally elsewhere in Baghdad on Friday, called by the cleric in support of expelling U.S. troops. The spectacle had won the backing of Iran-backed militias who have repeatedly attacked the protest movement, leading some among its number to suggest that Sadr had abandoned them.
“I am expressing my disappointment and my regret toward all those who doubted me among the Tahrir Square protesters,” he responded in a tweet. “I thought they were supporters of me and of Iraq.”
The impact was almost instantaneous. After an initial wave of supporters left protest camps across Baghdad and the south, eyewitnesses said, riot police began a first assault in the city of Basra, setting fire to a sea of tents at 2 a.m local time.
Security forces moved next in Baghdad, using tear gas and live ammunition to clear crowds in the central Tayaran and Khilani squares, and later pushing down a street toward Tahrir. Washington Post reporters heard rounds of live ammunition being fired and saw scores of young men run from tear gas, then flames rising up from tents left behind.
As the security forces advanced, fear and confusion overtook the protesters still in the camps.
Boys with balaclavas and makeshift shields carried molotov cocktails toward the clashes. In one tent on the edge of Tahrir Square, activists begged two women to leave for their own safety. Cellphones rang continuously as worried families urged the others to do the same.
In a video circulating on social media, apparently filmed Saturday, a distraught young man held out a necklace bearing Sadr’s likeness. ” Sayyid Moqtada, I am one of your followers, but why are you selling us out?” he shouted at the camera, using an honorific name of the cleric. “They burned the photos of the Martys.”
Iraq has been run by a caretaker government since November, when Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi lost support from the country’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
On Saturday, protesters and analysts saw political motivations behind Sadr’s decision to reject the protesters. Political blocs have yet to agree on Abdul-Mahdi’s successor, and forces are now jockeying to ensure that their agenda will be prominent in a new premier’s plans.
As night fell across the protest camps Saturday, fear seemed to harden into resentment and resolve. Crowds swelled and demonstrators carried the national flag as they chanted: “We sacrifice our blood and souls for you Iraq.”