Iraqi security forces fire tear gas, live bullets amid protests

Cheryl Sanders
January 25, 2020

The unrest following al-Sadr's decision to pull back his followers on Friday along with the calm of the anti-U.S. rally the previous day underscored the cleric's ability to manipulate the street during a critical time in Iraqi politics, analysts said.

Earlier, Iraqi security forces raided Baghdad's main protest site at Tahrir Square, firing live rounds and tear gas at anti-government demonstrators who have camped out there for months, Reuters reporters said.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most number of seats in the May 2018 parliament elections, had called for a "million-man" demonstration to demand the withdrawal of American troops following the USA drone strike near Baghdad's airport that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi PMU commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, sparking the ire of Iraqi officials from across the political spectrum.

In the southern city of Basra, security forces raided the main anti-government sit-in overnight and deployed in force to stop protesters gathering there again, security sources said.

Sadr announced on Friday that he would halt any involvement by his supporters in demonstrations that have called since October for the removal of Iraq's ruling elite, Reuters reported.

In Basra, protesters urged Sadr to reconsider what they said was a withdrawal of support for popular demonstrations. Another three died and 14 were wounded in the southern city of Nassiriya when security forces took control of a bridge occupied for days by demonstrators, security sources and medics said.

A spokesperson for al-Sadr said his supporters withdrew from Basra because protesters had insulted those participating in the anti-U.S. rally and even obstructed access to the rally point.

The tents were burned down and municipal staff were seen clearing the charred remains on Saturday to reopen the square. Crackdowns by security forces have killed at least 500 protesters.

Al Sadr's tweet came just hours after tens of thousands of his followers staged a separate anti-US rally in a nearby Baghdad neighbourhood, which most demonstrators in the square steered clear of.

One young activist in Baghdad accused Sadr of greenlighting a wider crackdown by pulling political cover. "Why?" he asked angrily.

The US killing of the top Iranian military commander, Gen Qasem Soleimani, on 3 January at Baghdad airport has fuelled tensions.

No Iraqi or USA forces were killed but on Friday, the Pentagon revealed 34 American soldiers had suffered traumatic head injuries or concussion. "We are one people and stand together united".

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