Iraqi security forces raid protest camps after populist cleric withdraws support for demonstrators

Security forces set fire to anti-government protest tents in the southern Iraq early Saturday and re-opened key public squares in Baghdad that had been occupied by demonstrators for months.

The crackdown came hours after a powerful Shia cleric dealt the protest movement a blow by withdrawing his support, prompting his followers to pack up and leave the demonstration encampments.

One protester was killed and 44 wounded when security forces fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse them from nearby Baghdad’s Khilani Square, as clearance operations were underway, medical and security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Near the square, demonstrators gathered around a torched tuk tuk, auto-rickhaw taxis that became the most potent symbol of the anti-government demonstration, which security forces had set ablaze.

Activists said the presence of Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers and his militia group had shielded the protesters from security forces and unknown groups looking to harm and suppress them. With that cover gone, many in the four-month-old movement feared the worst.

Demonstrators block a road with burning tires in the southern Iraqi city, Nassiriya. (Ahmed Dhahi/Reuters)

His decision to withdraw support came just hours after tens of thousands of his followers staged a separate anti-U.S. rally in a nearby Baghdad neighbourhood, which most anti-government demonstrators steered clear of. The succession of events amid an ongoing political tug-of-war over naming the next prime minister sent a clear message to Iraqi officials: The Iraqi street was al-Sadr’s domain.

It also comes as Iraq is embroiled in ongoing U.S.-Iran tensions that reached fever pitch when an American drone strike killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad’s airport.

“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.

‘We are all alone now’

In Tahrir Square, the hub 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 fearing 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.

In a tweet Friday evening, al-Sadr indicated his “disappointment” toward anti-government protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-government protests.

“I am expressing my disappointment and my regret toward all those who doubted me among the Tahrir Square protesters,” said the tweet. “I thought they were supporters of me and of Iraq.” He also accused protesters of being “foreign paid tools.”

Riot police fire tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters in Baghdad on Saturday. (Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press)

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 Sadrist movement’s position toward the demonstrations will be neutral, not with them or against them,” said Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi.

At around 2 a.m. local time Saturday, riot police set fire to a protest encampment in a central square in the oil-rich southern city of Basra, two activists said. The crackdown came after al-Sadr’s followers had packed up their tents and left.

Demonstrators are seen among smoke rising from tents that were set ablaze during another anti-government protest in Baghdad. (Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press)

“The protest square is now controlled (by the security forces), after they used force,” said Basra activist Nakeeb Lueibi. “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 previously been a focal point of protest violence were re-opened for vehicle access, according to a statement from the Baghdad Operations Command.

Protesters feared the entry of security forces to Tahrir. At least eight tents occupied by al-Sadr’s supporters were removed, said two activists.

“(Al-Sadr’s statement) gave the green light for the government to suppress the demonstrations,” said Husanien Ali, a 35-year-old protester.

‘We are rebuilding the tents’

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 fearing reprisal. “We are rebuilding the tents.”

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.

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, headed by Hadi al-Ameri. 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 the he can bring large numbers to the street, by asking his supporters to withdraw yesterday nigh is showing that he is the force behind the protests, and can put an end to them if necessary,” said Jiyad.

In Baghdad, the vital Mohammed al-Qasim highway, Tayaran Square and al-Nidhal Street were all reopened.

Ahrar Bridge, which had been partly occupied by protesters in a stand-off with security forces, was also reopened, according to Baghdad Operations Command. Concrete blocs has also been removed to re-open al-Khilani Square.

Protesters continued to occupy the Jumhuriya and Sinak bridges, which lead to the heavily fortified Green Zone.

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