BAGHDAD – Iraqi government security forces resumed protesters in Baghdad and Basra on Saturday, in an apparent attempt to quell demonstrations that have lasted almost four months amid calls for new elections and the end of government corruption.
In Baghdad, security forces moved into two of the smaller protest sites and approached the center, Tahrir Square, before retreating, but fired tear gas and bullets that wounded at least four.
The government’s move to eliminate the protesters came after the prominent Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, announced in a tweet Friday that he withdrew support for the protesters and would no longer intervene on his behalf. He said his movement was the result of what he called the antagonistic behavior of some of the protesters towards his followers.
His withdrawal from support, and the resulting departure of some of his followers from the demonstrations, deprived protests of a critical base of participants, leaving those who remain more vulnerable to government repression.
By Saturday afternoon, there were still thousands of protesters in the streets of Baghdad, but Sadr’s supporters had removed most of their stores that had provided shelter and medical attention to the protesters. There was also a significant exodus of his followers from Basra, a key city in the southern Shiite of Iraqi majority. In other southern cities, some of his followers also removed the tents.
In Basra, the police moved to the main protest square after Mr. Sadr’s followers left, setting fire to the stores and leaving lots of ashes, burnt blankets and bare metal frames.
“We can say that Basra is over,” said Juma al-Hamdani, a civil society activist who runs a non-governmental organization there and had been protesting since early October. “I’m heartbroken.”
Mr. al-Hamdani blamed the loss of Mr. Sadr’s support for the withdrawal of protesters. “I thought he had changed his behavior, but what a shame is that he disappointed us.”
In Baghdad, protests continued on Saturday afternoon, but the area in which they were allowed was dramatically restricted, which had been a long-standing plan by security forces and government factions that wanted to see them end. the protests
Major General Tahsin al-Khafaji, the Iraqi spokesman for the Joint Command in Baghdad, insisted that the removal of protesters in the capital, along with their stores and facilities at some popular protest gathering sites, was carried out “cooperatively.”
But tear gas clouded the air and protesters waving Molotov cocktails ran periodically through the streets of Baghdad while security forces fired into the air to push protesters back.
Mr. Sadr’s followers and the protesting students and civil society activists represent two influential lines in Iraq, and the latter represents an outside community, generally more urban and educated; and the Sadristas, a poorer urban stretch with roots in rural areas.
The two together gave the protests the power to remain, and the collective protection of their numbers, but their cultural differences made them deeply cautious of each other.
Protesters who stood firm on Saturday immediately expressed that the Sadristas had left and despised having obeyed the orders of a cleric, but above all they criticized Sadr for what they considered inconsistent support.
Sadr never called on his followers to join the demonstrations, but he strongly supported most of his demands, especially the elimination of corrupt politicians and the provision of more services and jobs.
“He doesn’t know what he wants, he puts one leg here and another leg there,” said Ali Hussein, 22, a student at Mustansiriya University in the city of Sadr, but not in favor of Mr. Sadr.
“In Sadr City, his followers will follow him blindly,” Hussein said. “But those who are aware, most of whom are students, lost them.”
In Sadr’s 17 years of participation in the Iraqi political scene, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is influential and has the power to shake the status quo.
His followers had presented themselves as protectors of the protesters, whether that was the case or not, so their withdrawal implicitly opened the way for opponents of protesters, including Iraqi government forces, to move.
Sadr is also known in Iraq for his considerable militia, known as Soraya Salaam, or the Peace Brigades, who, although they did not come armed to the protest squares, posed a veiled threat to the government and others who wanted to see the protesters retired .
Some sadristas traveling to Baghdad from southern Iraq to participate in Friday’s rally against the US military presence in Iraq said they were insulted or even blocked by non-Sadristas when they tried to join. Civil society protesters have tended to be less anti-American.
Explaining his reason for retiring, his spokesman, Sheikh Saleh al-Obaidi, said it was meant to be more a “warning” to civil society protesters and implicitly, to other secular and less anti-American protesters, to treat Mr. Sadr’s followers are better.
“If there is a kind of apology from the protesters or a request to return, maybe things can start over,” Mr. al-Obaidi said.
Falih Hassan contributed from Baghdad.