Iraq forces clear protest sites as leaders reach deal to end rallies

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraqi security forces began clearing protest sites in Baghdad and across the south on Saturday, after political leaders agreed to stand by the current government by any means necessary, including force.

The fractured political class appears to have rallied around embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, whose government was threatened by the largest and deadliest grassroots protests in Iraq in decades.

On Saturday, security forces wrested back control of three bridges over the River Tigris in the heart of Baghdad that had been partially occupied by anti-government protesters.

They retook the Al-Sinek, Al-Shuhada and Al-Ahrar bridges that link the east bank, where the main protest camps are located, with west bank districts which are home to government offices and foreign embassies.

Amid volleys of tear gas, security forces chased demonstrators back onto Al-Rasheed Street, one of Baghdad's oldest and most celebrated thoroughfares.

"After they chased us off the bridge, they started throwing stun grenades at us," one protester said, his face wrapped in a black scarf with a white skull.

"Our situation as protesters is not good, but we'll stay until we find a solution," he said.

Protesters still occupy part of Al-Jumhuriyah (Republic) Bridge, the southernmost of the capital's bridges and the closest to the focal point of the protests in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

- 'With any means possible' -

In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, protesters' tents were reduced to ashes when security forces fired searing hot tear gas canisters at them.

And in the southern city of Basra, security forces cleared a protest camp outside the provincial government headquarters, leaving three dead and dozens wounded, according to medical sources.

The demonstrators had thrown molotov cocktails and lit fires on the concrete blast walls around the offices, before security forces used tear gas and live rounds to disperse them.

Amnesty International said the security forces have been using military-grade tear gas canisters made in Iran or Serbia that can be deadly if fired at point-blank range.

Nearly 300 people have died in protest-related violence since rallies erupted on October 1, spreading from Baghdad to cities across the south, according to an AFP toll.

The government has stopped issuing updated figures.

Public anger first focused on widespread corruption and a lack of jobs, then escalated into calls for the entire ruling system to be overturned.

The protests initially took the government by surprise but Iraq's entrenched political class has since closed ranks to protect its rule.

"Most of the heads of major blocs agreed in a meeting to keep Adel Abdel Mahdi and maintain power in exchange for reforms on corruption and constitutional amendments," said a senior member of one party represented at the gathering.

"They agreed to end the protests with any means possible and to reopen the bridges and shuttered streets," the official said.

- Sadr falls silent -

Abdel Mahdi, 77, came to power last year through a shaky alliance between populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Ameri, a leader of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network.

The Hashed was formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group but has since been ordered to integrate into the regular security forces.

Many of its factions are backed by Iran and when protests broke out, they stood firmly on the government's side.

Late Friday, the Fatah alliance -- the Hashed's political wing and the second-largest bloc in parliament -- reiterated its support for the government and armed forces.

Spokesman Ahmad al-Assadi said the bloc would support reforms proposed by the prime minister and called for "fundamental constitutional amendments."

Sadr, whose Saeroon bloc is the largest in parliament, had called on the prime minister to resign in the face of protests.

But he appears to have been persuaded to return to the fold by Iran's Iraq pointman Major General Qasem Soleimani, sources said.

Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's foreign operations arm, has been shuttling between Iraqi politicians since the protests began to rally support for the government.

A source present at the meetings told AFP that Soleimani had met with Sadr as well as Mohammed Ridha Sistani, the son of Iraq's top Shiite cleric Ali Sistani.

"That meeting resulted in an agreement that Abdel Mahdi would remain in office," the source said.

Sadr has since gone silent amid reports he is in Iran.

Parliament was scheduled to convene on Saturday to discuss the government's reform proposals.