Iraqi security fire on crowds as Baghdad crackdown begins

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Iraqi Security Forces appear to have launched an operation to clear Baghdad’s central squares that have been home to the months-long national uprising, with riot officers moving in on Saturday morning.

Around noon, riot police fired tear gas and live rounds, forcing hundreds of protestors to retreat from Al Khilani Square around 500 meters north-west of Tahrir Square.

In Tahrir, a man tried to rally panicking protestors yelling through a microphone “where are you all going?” Meanwhile, masked men ran with crates of Molotov cocktails in the direction of gunfire, as it rattled over Tahrir Square.

There were no immediate reports of casualties but at least seven people were wounded in clashes with police earlier in the day, medics and security sources said.

The clashes took place after authorities began removing concrete barriers near Tahrir Square and across at least one main bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad.

Security forces stormed a number of other protests sites in Baghdad, Diwaniyah and Basra late on Friday.

In Basra, security forces tore through the main protest site, ripping and setting fire to tents, activists told The National. Videos posted to social media showed tents going up in flames.

At least 21 people were injured in the morning’s clearings, Reuters reported.

Despite a core contingent of demonstrators looking set to dig in, traffic began to flow along the roundabout that circles the Al Khilani Square almost as soon as the officers had pushed protesters back down the road towards Tahrir Square.

The operation came just hours after dozens of supporters of Shiite populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr packed up their tents and began to leave the protest site. The move left large holes in the otherwise unbroken sea of tents that have occupied central Baghdad since early October when thousands took to the streets demanding an end to years of corruption, stagnation and mismanagement.

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr dismantle their tents in preparation for withdrawing from the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. Iraq's anti-government protests were dealt a blow after a powerful cleric Shiite withdrew his support from the movement. Shortly after they packed up and left, security forces to set fire to protesters' tents overnight Saturday in the country's south, as well as re-open key public squares in Baghdad that had been occupied by the demonstrators. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr dismantle their tents in preparation for withdrawing from the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square. AP

Protesters have demanded the resignation of the government and the appointment of a new cabinet that can address the country’s rising unemployment and almost non-existent public services.

Mr Al Sadr has vocally backed the protest movement although he fell short of ever calling on his supporters to take to the streets. Still, he demanded a government that could provide jobs and an end to years of corruption that has seen billions in oil revenue disappear from the state’s budget.

Many of Mr Sadr's millions of supporters who hail from Baghdad's slums have been involved in demonstrations.

However, the firebrand cleric, who emerged as one of the biggest winners from the last election but osculates between being a strong nationalist stance and backing Iranian influence in the country, appeared to withdrew that support for the protest movement.

On Friday, Mr Sadr wrote on Twitter that he would "try not to interfere in the issue [of protesters], either negatively or positively, so that they can shepherd the fate of Iraq." He did not elaborate although many saw it as confirmation that he had removed his endorsement.

His intervention came hours after his supporters held what they dubbed a million man march against American troops stationed in the country. The protest comes after parliament voted for the US to leave Iraq after a January 3 airstrike killed top Iranian general Qassim Sulimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the Iraqi head of its Iran backed militias.

A woman wears a shirt with a photograph of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Al Sadr, a Shiite Muslim cleric assassinated during the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's rule, and Moqtada Al Sadr, as thousands gather in the capital Baghdad for a "million-strong" march to demand an end to the presence of US forces in their country. AFP

Protesters carry a caricature of US President Donald . AFP

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr carry placards depicting US President Donald Trump at a protest. Reuters

Supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr chant slogans and carry banners during a demonstration in central Baghdad. EPA

Women shout slogans as supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr gather in the capital Baghdad. AFP

A supporter of Moqtada Al Sadr carries a banner reading in Arabic 'Get out of our country' during a demonstration. AFP

Supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr chant slogans and carry the Iraqi national flag during a demonstration. EPA

Supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr chant slogans and carry his picture during a demonstration. EPA

Supporters o fMoqtada Al Sadr hold a sign reading "Get out of our land before you leave defeated" at a protest. Reuters

Protesters raise a placard as supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr gather in the capital Baghdad. AFP

Followers of Moqtada Al Sadr gather in Baghdad. AP Photo

Thousands of Iraqis, waving national flags, take to the streets in central Baghdad. AFP

Supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr chant slogans and carry the Iraqi national flag during a demonstration. EPA

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In southern Iraq’s Basra, protesters urged Mr Sadr to reconsider his withdrawal. In a letter circulated on social media, they called for the support of Sadrists, without whom they feared attacks by security forces.

After security forces in the southern city raided the main anti-government sit-in overnight, they deployed in force to stop protesters gathering there again on Saturday, security sources told Reuters. Police arrested at least 16 protesters in Basra, they added. – additional reporting by agencies

Updated: January 25, 2020 03:18 PM

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