Violence has resurged in the capital and Shia-majority south this week as anti-government activists ramped up their road closures and sit-ins while security forces sought to snuff out the campaign.

Anti-government protesters chant slogans as they march during a demonstration in the central Iraqi holy shrine city of Karbala on January 26, 2020
Anti-government protesters chant slogans as they march during a demonstration in the central Iraqi holy shrine city of Karbala on January 26, 2020 (AFP)

Iraqi security forces fired teargas and live bullets in renewed clashes with protesters in Baghdad and other cities on Sunday, a Reuters witness and security sources said, following a push to clear a sit-in camps across the country.

Demonstrators are demanding the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in domestic politics, especially by Iran, which has come to dominate state institutions since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in a 2003 US-led invasion.

Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr called for demonstrations against the US Embassy in Baghdad on Sunday and in other cities.

Later, he called off demonstrations "to avoid internal strife", according to his office.

On Friday, Sadr organised a large march in which tens of thousands protested against the US military presence in Iraq.

Protesters on Sunday threw petrol bombs and stones at security forces which responded by firing tear gas canisters and live rounds into the air.

The authorities' latest attempt to push back protesters and restore order came after Sadr, who has millions of supporters in Baghdad and the south, said on Saturday he would end his involvement in anti-government unrest.

"We protest because we have a cause, I don’t think Muqtada Sadr or any other politician will change our mind," said a protester in Baghdad who declined to give his name.

Sadr's supporters had bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped shield them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen, but began withdrawing from sit-in camps on Saturday following his announcement.

Security forces then removed concrete barriers near Baghdad's Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have camped out for months, and across at least one main bridge over the Tigris River.

"I don’t go to protests often but I came out today because of what they did yesterday, I want to express my solidarity with my brothers in Tahrir," said Hussain Ali, a student.

Protesters in the capital were coughing and washing their faces and eyes to rid themselves of the effects of the gas while Iraqi Red Cross workers provided first aid, as the site was inaccessible to ambulances, a Reuters reporter said.

At least 14 protesters were injured in the clashes in the capital, security and medical sources said.

Tuk tuks evacuated wounded protesters in clouds of tear gas and black smoke from burning tyres.

Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of university students gathered in Tahrir square, the main protest camp, chanting slogans against the US and Iran.

Unrest in the south

Clashes with security forces in the southern city of Nassiriya left at least 17 protesters wounded, four of them by live bullets, police and medical sources said.

Protesters set fire to two security vehicles in the city centre and as hundreds of other demonstrators controlled the key bridges in the city, a Reuters witness said.

In the southern city of Basra, more than 2000 students from different universities pooled into the protest camp, another Reuters witness said.

Protests also continued in the cities of Kerbala, Najaf, and Diwaniya in defiance to attempts by security forces to end their months-long sit-in, police sources and Reuters witnesses said.

The unrest resumed last week after a lull of several weeks, following US air strikes that killed Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia commander.

The killing of Soleimani, to which Iran responded by ballistic missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases, has revived tensions in Iraq's domestic politics and delayed the formation of a new government. 

Source: Reuters