Seven protesters were killed on Saturday in Iraq as security forces cleared protest sites in Baghdad and Basra using live ammunition, tear gas and sound bombs, police and medics said.
The crackdown began in the morning when security forces tried to wrest back control of three bridges spanning the River Tigris in the heart of Baghdad.
Iraqi forces then moved towards Tahrir (Liberation) Square, ground zero for the month-long movement demanding regime change, firing live rounds and tear gas.
Three demonstrators died from bullet wounds and a fourth was killed when a tear gas canister pierced his skull, medics and police sources said.
“The security forces are getting closer to us, but the protesters are trying to hold them off by burning tyres,” a doctor in Tahrir told AFP news agency.
“We can hear live fire now and there are so many wounded.”
Three more protesters were killed and dozens were wounded in the southern city of Basra, medical sources said, as security forces cleared a protest camp outside the provincial government headquarters.
More than 260 people have been killed and thousands wounded by security forces since the demonstrations broke out in October. The government has stopped issuing figures.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Baghdad, said clashes between several hundred protesters and security forces were ongoing in Tahrir Square.
“There are reports of people being killed by security forces using live ammunition and a lot of tear gas, but the Ministry of Interior is denying that any shots have been fired against protesters,” she said.
“We spoke to a military spokesman and he said it’s inaccurate that they are trying to disperse protesters in Tahrir Square, but said they will be arresting anyone who tries to block roads or commit any crime because they want lives to resume back to normal.”
Security forces also rounded up demonstrators in Basra.
In the revered Shia holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, protesters’ tents were reduced to ashes when security forces fired hot tear gas canisters at them.
‘End protests by any means’
The bloodshed came after political leaders agreed to rally around Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whose embattled government is threatened by the largest and deadliest grassroots protests in Iraq in decades.
Abdul Mahdi, 77, came to power last year through a shaky alliance between populist cleric Muqtada al–Sadr and Hadi al–Amiri, a leader of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network.
When the protests erupted in October, Sadr threw his weight behind them while the Hashed backed the government.
But they closed rank around the premier this week after a series of meetings led by Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign operations arm.
Soleimani, who often plays a mediating role during times of crisis in Iraq, met Sadr and persuaded him to return to the fold, said a source present at the meetings.
“Those meetings resulted in an agreement that Abdel Mahdi would remain in office,” the source said.
Sadr has since gone quiet amid reports he is in Iran.
The source also told AFP news agency that Soleimani met Mohammed Ridha Sistani, the son of Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al–Sistani.
On Saturday, Sistani’s office issued a statement denying that cleric “was part of a deal for the current government to stay and the protests to end”.
Meanwhile, the streets around Tahrir were in chaos.
“The security forces told us the protests are over and everyone should go home,” one protester shouted. “But we put up more barricades so they won’t enter Tahrir. Tomorrow, no one goes to work.”
Protesters are now on the back foot but still occupy part of Al–Jumhuriyah (Republic) Bridge, the closest to Tahrir.
“Our situation as protesters is not good, but we’ll stay until we find a solution,” said another protester.
Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC’s second-biggest producer, but one in five people live in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, the World Bank says.
Those staggering rates sparked the first wave of protests on October 1.
Protesters say the current framework allows political parties to dole out government jobs based on affiliation and bribes, choking out independents in a country with a weak private sector.
They are demanding profound reform and constitutional amendments.