BAGHDAD: Iraqi anti-government demonstrators check burnt tents at a protest sit-in in Tahrir Square in the center of the Iraqi capital Baghdad yesterday.-AFP

BAGHDAD: Three protesters were shot dead in Iraq yesterday in clashes with security forces clearing out streets and squares occupied for months by anti-government demonstrators, stoking fears of a wider crackdown. The fresh violence came a day after populist cleric Moqtada Sadr announced he would no longer back the youth-dominated movement, instead holding his own rally in Baghdad to demand US troops leave Iraq.

Protesters feared the withdrawal of his support could pave the way for authorities to suppress their movement and by yesterday evening, clashes had broken out between riot police and demonstrators across Iraq. In the southern flashpoint of Nasiriyah, two protesters were shot dead and some 20 wounded.

Another demonstrator was shot dead and more than 40 were wounded in skirmishes in Baghdad, a medical source said. Since early yesterday morning, security forces had been using tear gas and live rounds to clear protest camps in the capital, with an AFP reporter seeing some wielding batons chase a group of young protesters.

A medic told AFP she saw riot police set fire to large tents used as field clinics to treat wounded demonstrators. The city's military command announced it had retaken control of Baghdad's Ahrar Bridge, a flashpoint for clashes between security forces and demonstrators for months. It also pushed protesters out of Tayaran Square and Mohammad Qasim highway, where new sit-ins this week were intended to pressure authorities into enacting long-awaited reforms. Security forces had not yet entered the main protests camp in Tahrir Square, where young men had deployed carrying black shields made out of metal drums, on which they had painted the words "Tahrir Shield Squad".

Sadr supporters pull out
Sadr, a militiaman-turned-politician, is notorious for switching political positions with dizzying speed. He backed the protests when they erupted in October and called on the government to resign-even though he controls parliament's largest bloc and other top posts. But last week, he called for a separate rally to demand 5,200 US troops leave Iraq, after a US strike on Baghdad killed top Iraqi and Iranian commanders earlier this month.

Thousands streamed into Baghdad for Friday's rally and while Sadr did not attend, he hailed the turnout and said he would no longer be involved in the anti-government campaign. The about-face prompted Sadr supporters, who had earned the reputation as the most well-organized demonstrators, to dismantle their camps across the country. In Hilla, Diwaniyah, Kut, Amarah and the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, tents were stripped down to their metal frames yesterday. In the southern port city of Basra, security forces stormed a protest camp and forcibly dispersed activists overnight, an AFP correspondent reported.

The tents were burned down and municipal staff were seen clearing the charred remains on Saturday to reopen the square. But a crowd of protesters returned in the afternoon to try to resume their rally, clashing with security forces. One young activist in Baghdad accused Sadr of greenlighting a wider crackdown by pulling political cover. "When your people started leaving, the riot police came at 3:00 am and took the whole (Ahrar) Bridge. Why?" he asked angrily.

US reveals wounded troops
The protesters have been calling for snap polls under a new electoral law, an independent prime minister and accountability for corrupt officials and for those who ordered violence against demonstrators. More than 470 people have been killed in protest-related violence since October, according to an AFP tally. The protest movement took a serious hit in recent weeks as US-Iran tensions skyrocketed, threatening to overwhelm Iraq and eclipse the campaign for sweeping reform.

A US strike outside the Baghdad airport on January 3 killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and a top Iraqi commander, infuriating Iraqi officials. Parliament denounced the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and passed a non-binding resolution demanding that all foreign forces, including 5,200 US troops helping fight the Islamic State group, should leave.

Iran retaliated by launching a wave of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq. No Iraqi or US forces were killed but on Friday, the Pentagon revealed 34 American soldiers had suffered traumatic head injuries or concussion. It was an unprecedented attack on US troops in Iraq, who had faced a wave of smaller, proxy assaults in recent months that killed one US contractor and one Iraqi soldier. - AFP