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Iraqi Security Forces Push to Regain Control of Cities from Protesters

BAGHDAD—Iraqi security forces on Saturday regained control over some areas in central Baghdad and southern cities after an influential cleric withdrew his support for widespread protests, clearing the way for the government to end a nearly four-month-old uprising.

The push on the part of Iraqi security forces to dislodge the protesters provoked deadly clashes, raising fears that a final assault will result in more bloodshed. At least four protesters were killed with live ammunition and tear gas fired by security forces as they sought to reopen a highway and several intersections in Baghdad and the southern city of Nassiriya, according to medics and security.

Around 500 people have already been killed since the protests began in October, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission. Despite the state’s violent response, protesters have refused to give up on demands for an overhaul of the political system dominated by parties that have failed to bring prosperity to the country 17 years since it became a democracy. The protesters have also rejected foreign interference in the country’s affairs, particularly by Iran.

The push by security forces came after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced on Friday he would no longer be involved with the antigovernment protests, which he had previously thrown his weight behind. Mr. Sadr expressed disappointment that some antigovernment protesters had accused him of seeking to hijack their movement.

Hours later, his followers began dismantling their tents in squares in Baghdad and other southern cities, leaving the remaining protesters nervous but defiant. “They gave a green light to the government to come and crush us,” said protester Abu Narjis, 26. “It shows they weren’t here because of their love of the nation, but out of servitude to an individual,” he said, referring to Mr. Sadr.

Activists in Baghdad urged people to join them to fill the vacuum left by Mr. Sadr’s followers. Young men wearing balaclavas prepared Molotov cocktails to fend off any further advance by security forces toward Tahrir Square—the epicenter of antigovernment protests in Baghdad. Volunteer medics said they had treated people for gunshot wounds, tear-gas inhalation and injuries inflicted by clubs with spikes.

Protesters in the southern city of Basra pitched new tents over the charred remains of those torched by riot police earlier on Saturday.

Under sustained pressure from the street, parliament last year passed a new election law and Prime Minister

Adel Abdul-Mahdi

was forced to resign. A constitutional deadline to choose his successor passed one month ago, but political factions have yet to agree on a new premier.

The protests have put intense pressure on Iran and its allies in the country, which wanted to keep Abdul-Mahdi in power. Pro-Iranian politicians and militia leaders have accused the antigovernment protesters of colluding with the U.S.

Mr. Sadr’s support for the protests had previously put him on a collision course with pro-Iranian factions, but the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani brought them together in opposition to the U.S. military presence.

Mr. Sadr held a million-man march against the U.S. “occupation” on Friday, drawing many of his supporters away from the antigovernment protest before announcing he was stepping back.

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