As Baghdad darkened Friday evening, teenage boys carrying shields made of barrels cut in half charged into a growing crowd. Riot police were moving forward across a bridge, pushing back protesters with gunfire and tear gas. Smoke from burning tires curled into the night.
Written in white letters on the barrels was: “Attention, martyrs are advancing.”
By morning, two more young men were dead in Baghdad. In Basra, tents were burned at a sit-in camp, and protesters in Karbala prepared for another day of clashes.
Amid the chaos that night, a single tweet tipped the scale. The once defiantly strong anti-government movement in Iraq weakened considerably.
Prominent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr effectively withdrew his support for the demonstrations, and those of his followers attending packed up their tents and left the camps.
Without Sadr’s support, protesters said, some of Iraq’s many militias and divisions of security forces will try to end the almost four-month-long sit-ins and rallies in Iraq that have threatened the status quo.
Baghdad protesters soon lost control of surrounding neighborhoods and retreated to Tahir Square, the epicenter of their demonstration. On Saturday, they were joined by other protesters, rallying again inside the square.
It is estimated at least 600 people have been killed and 20,000 people have been wounded in the protests across Iraq since October.
Demonstrators in Karbala continued to occupy the city’s main square on Saturday, but security forces are growing increasingly bold, they said, and clashes wounded several people on both Friday and Saturday.
“This was a betrayal to the people who are simply asking for their rights,” said Ali Mikdam, who has been camping in Tahrir Square since October. “But we won’t stop protesting.
“If we have to, we will fight.”
In a protest tent in Karbala on Saturday, a young man played a video of a teenage boy on his phone, saying it was taken last week and the boy was 14 years old.
In the video, a hand gently slaps the boy’s face and his eyes flutter. His face droops and we hear a moan in the background. The boy is dead.
“We couldn’t get to a hospital,” said another man as the tent grew crowded.
The young men were quick to share tales of recent clashes. A few blocks away, gunfire could be heard from a roadblock put up by protesters earlier in the day.
Security forces were shooting, said Ali Hassan, 27, and they would soon move in with tear gas to clear the roadblock.
Hassan tried to run a clothing store before the demonstrations began but ended up so poor he didn’t even have shoes and was run out of business. Now protesters are running out of money for food and the demonstrations are becoming more dangerous.
“Tensions are rising between the government and the people,” Hassan said. “If we have to, we will fight.”
From the beginning, protesters have called for new leadership, jobs, health care, security, and an end to widespread corruption and extreme poverty. Now they also want their dead to be recognized as martyrs, meaning patriots and heroes of Iraq.
And while all the young men in the tent say they are prepared to stay and fight if need be, many add that even if they wanted to go, they don’t think they could do it safely.
Ali Khafagi, 30, was a barber before he quit to work as a medic in the Karbala protest. Thousands of people have been arrested in connection with protests, and many are still in jail, said Khafagi.
“Inside the demonstrations we are safe because it makes the government look bad if they arrest us here,” he explained. “But if I leave, they may follow me home and take me.”