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Police Set Fire To Iraqi Protesters' Tents As Shiite Cleric Withdraws Support


In Iraq, there's been the biggest crackdown on anti-government protests since they began more than three months ago. It follows a dramatic reversal of support for them by a leading Shiite cleric who's now in Iran. NPR's Jane Arraf has this report from the protests. And a warning - you will hear gunfire in this story.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This was the sound of tear gas canisters fired into the crowd by Iraqi security forces near a Baghdad square full of protesters Saturday. My NPR Iraqi colleagues were there as one canister hit a protester in the back, knocking him to the ground.


ARRAF: Used to being shot at as he tried to retrieve tear gas canisters to protect other protesters, he was wearing body armor and a helmet. He picked up the potentially lethal canister, threw it back at security forces and told other people to run. They did as riot police fired live bullets.


ARRAF: More than 600 protesters are believed to have been killed since the protests began in Baghdad and cities across the south. An estimated 20,000 more have been wounded. But this was described as the worst crackdown by security forces since protesters took to the streets more than three months ago, demanding a new government, an end to corruption and an end to Iranian influence in Iraq.

Security forces launched the crackdown after Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr, now in Iran, pulled his support and protection for the protesters. Millions, including one of the biggest blocs in Iraq's parliament and many members of Iraqi security forces, follow him. Then came the crackdown.

We're standing in one of the side roads off of Tahrir Square. I'm just going to move behind something. And you can hear the gunfire and see the smoke rising. Protesters say security forces came in last night to clear this square that has been a center of the protest movement here since October.

Down the road, there's a charred, blackened mess that used to be a medical tent for treating protesters. A medical student named Muslim says security forces burned it down with a gasoline bomb. We're using just first names because even peaceful protesters are being arrested or kidnapped.

MUSLIM: They advanced here, controlled this street by the two sides, throw some smoke bombs with live ammo. Then they burned the tent. Everything from blankets to medicine - everything - everything they burned.

ARRAF: He said the medics shouted at them there was oxygen in the tent, but they didn't care.

MUSLIM: They want to clear the square. They don't want protesters here. They think that we are only sabotaging this country, while, in fact, we are building it. We are cleaning it from every corrupt person here.

ARRAF: Some of these young people haven't been home for three months, afraid they'll be kidnapped if they leave the square.

On the pavement near the burned tent, a young man dressed in black is hunched over, sobbing. He's too distraught to talk, but a friend, Ali, a dental student, explains.

ALI: Our home - he cry about our home, about Iraq. He cry about Iraq. They destroy Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: When he's able to speak again, the young man tells us, "It's all gone for nothing."


ARRAF: In the street, two protesters argue over whether they should retreat or hold their ground. There's a lot of anger here. These demonstrations have been unprecedented - grassroots, secular and nationalist. These are mostly Shia Iraqis rejecting the political system dominated by Iran-backed Shia parties and militias. One protester stops us and says he has something to say about Sadr, someone whom it's generally dangerous to criticize.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We had a lot of hope in him, and he sold us for a very simple thing - power. He is the most cowardly person in Iraq. Seven hundred people are on your conscience.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: At the medic's tent, the young volunteers sweep up broken glass.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARRAF: They break into a chant that goes, kill one, kill 100. We won't retreat.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARRAF: They search in the debris for a phone charger to call their parents and tell them they're still alive and that they're going to stay.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.