Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has ordered the country’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) to help put down anti-government protests that have rocked the country over the past weeks, Western news agencies are reporting.
Mahdi on October 26 ordered CTS forces onto the streets of the capital, Baghdad, and the southern city of Nasiriyah and were told to “use all necessary measures” to shut down the protests, Reuters quoted security sources as saying.
Reuters reported that CTS troops took over checkpoints in neighborhoods surrounding Baghdad's central Tahrir Square as midnight approached and began moving protesters out of the area.
Regular security forces were earlier unable to clear the square of protesters despite firing tear gas.
Police sources told Reuters that four people were killed in the capital after being struck in the head by tear gas canisters fired by security personnel.
In Nasiriyah, police and security sources said CTS soldiers broke up rallies late on October 26 and early on October 27 by beating and arresting dozens.
At least 67 people have been killed and hundreds injured over the past two weeks in clashes with security forces across Iraq, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said on October 26.
Most of those killed were protesters in southern cities, as demonstrators expressed anger at politicians and Iran-backed Shi'ite militia groups.
Reuters quoted local police and health officials as saying at least seven protesters were killed and 38 wounded in the central city of Hillah early on October 27 when members of the Iran-backed Badr Organization militia opened fire on demonstrators.
Shi'ite Iran has wielded influence in Iraq since dictator Saddam Hussein's ouster following a 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and it backs powerful Shi'ite militias in the country, often in conflict with the country’s Sunni minority.
Nearly 200 people have been killed since the start of demonstrations against corruption, unemployment, and the lack of basic public services in early October.
Iraq’s military has admitted it used "excessive force" against demonstrators and said it had "begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts."
The wave of protests -- the deadliest unrest since the Islamic State (IS) extremist group was declared defeated in Iraq in 2017 -- is seen as the first major challenge to Mahdi's government, which came to power nearly a year ago.
Political leaders expressed support for security forces' actions over the weekend, and militia leaders also backed the tough stance against protesters, urging the prime minister not to back down.
The Iraqi parliament was scheduled to meet on October 26 in an emergency session to discuss protesters' demands, but not enough lawmakers attended and the session was canceled.