Iraqi security forces fire tear gas, live bullets amid protests

Iraqi security forces moved closer to Iraq’s main anti-government protest site Saturday after firing tear gas and live bullets near the location.

Iraqi protesters try to put out the fire at their tents following clashes with anti-riot police at the Al Tahrir square in central Baghdad, Iraq, on Saturday. Photo by Murtaja Lateef

Security forces used the tactics at Khilani Square, near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, at about noon, medics said. Police also set fire to protest tents on the nearby Sinak Bridge, according to several witnesses.

No casualties were reported, but medics said several protesters were injured.

Officials reopened several roads that protesters had previously shut down amid demands for government reforms.

“I just arrived to Tahrir Square with my friends and everyone is telling us to go back because the situation is getting dangerous,” Qamar Imad, 17, told Al Jazeera. “But we won’t leave Tahrir because it is ours. The sound of bullets will only strengthen our resolve.”

Protesters have camped in the capital for months with protesters seeking a snap poll, appointment of an independent prime minister and a crackdown on corruption.

The raid to move closer to Tahrir Square came after supporters of top Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr began packing up tents and leaving sit-ins in central Baghdad.

Sadr called for millions to march Friday in a different area of the capital for U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

The Pentagon sent 3,000 troops to the Middle East this month after a Dec. 31 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a few days before a U.S. drone strike killed Iraqi Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated by shooting ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases where U.S. forces were stationed. Hours after the attack, Iranian missiles shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane after it departed the airport in Tehran, killing all 176 aboard.

Thirty-four U.S. service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries since the attack on bases.

In a statement on Twitter and Facebook, Sadr expressed his concern about anti-government protesters who had made accusations that his rally was pro-government.

“From now on I will not interfere with them [anti-government protests] neither negative nor positive,” he said.

Some protesters blamed the violence in Tahrir Square on Sadr’s decision to no longer be involved in the protests, but one Sadr supporter, refuted that claim, saying the majority of his followers were still present.

“Al-Sadr did not order us in his statement to withdraw from the protests,” 24-year-old law student Durgham Hamid told Al Jazeera. “He was merely expressing his disappointment in those in Tahrir Square who have been criticizing him and his motives.

“We are still here at the sit-ins, and we will not leave until our demands have been met, contrary to what other protesters have been saying,” he added. “We are one people and stand together united.”

A Baghdad Operations Command statement said some main roads that had previously been a focal point for protesters were reopened for vehicle access, but protesters continue to occupy Jumhuriya and Sinak bridges.

BySommer Brokaw