Hundreds of thousands protest across Arab world
CAIRO – Hundreds of thousands poured out of mosques and staged protests across the Arab world Friday, some trying to shake off autocratic rulers and others pressuring embattled leaders to carry out sweeping reforms.
In the Libyan capital of Tripoli, protesters reported coming under a hail of bullets and said they saw at least seven people killed. In Iraq, troops opened fire in several cities to push back crowds marching on government offices, killing at least 12. Scuffles were reported in Yemen, while pro-reform marches in Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan were largely peaceful.
The large crowds signaled that the push for change in North Africa and the Middle East continues to build momentum. The first anti-government protests erupted several weeks ago, toppling rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and quickly spreading to other countries.
The situation remained most volatile in Libya, where longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi has cracked down hard on an 11-day-old rebellion after losing control over large chunks of the country.
In Tripoli, where Gadhafi remains in charge, protesters staged the first significant anti-government rallies in several days, trying to march from several districts to the central Green Square.
Protesters said they came under fire from pro-Gadhafi militias. One man among a crowd of thousands said gunmen on rooftops and in the streets opened fire with automatic weapons and even an anti-aircraft gun. "In the first wave of fire, seven people within 10 meters (yards) of me were killed. Many people were shot in the head," the man, who was marching from Tripoli's eastern Tajoura district, told The Associated Press. "It was really like we are dogs."
Across cities that have come under control of the rebels, tens of thousands held rallies to support their comrades in Tripoli.
Iraq saw its biggest and most violent anti-government protests since the wave of regional unrest began. Thousands marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces in several cities, an outpouring of anger that left 12 people dead.
The protests were fueled by frustration over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services.
"We want a good life like human beings, not like animals," said Khalil Ibrahim, 44, one of about 3,000 protesters in the capital, Baghdad. Demonstrators knocked down blast walls, threw rocks and scuffled with club-wielding troops who chased them down the street.
Many Iraqis rail against a government that locks itself in the highly fortified Green Zone, home to the parliament and the U.S. Embassy, and is viewed by most of its citizens as more interested in personal gain than public service.
Iraq's deadliest clashes Friday were reported in the northern city of Mosul, where hundreds rallying outside a provincial council building came under fire from guards. Officials said five people were killed. The other deaths were reported in four other cities.
Huge crowds also turned out in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, but with very different goals.
In Egypt, where an 18-day uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, tens of thousands jammed Cairo's Tahrir Square to keep up the pressure on the country's military rulers to carry out reforms.
Demonstrators said they are worried the army is not moving quickly enough on reforms, including repealing emergency laws, releasing political prisoners and removing members of Mubarak's regime from power.
Thousands chanted that they won't leave until they see Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, one of the Mubarak-era holdovers, removed from office. Some waved flags of Libya to show support for the uprising next door.
"We made Mubarak step down and we must make Shafiq also step down," said Safwat Hegazy, a protester from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group.
Since Mubarak's fall, the military rulers have disbanded both houses of parliament and promised constitutional reforms that will allow wider participation in elections, to be held within six months. They have also promised to repeal emergency laws that give security forces largely unchecked powers, though only when conditions permit — a caveat that worries protesters.
In Bahrain, the first Gulf state to be thrown into turmoil by the Arab world's wave of change, tens of thousands rallying in the central square demanded sweeping political concessions from the ruling monarch.
Security forces made no attempt to halt the marchers, an apparent sign that Bahrain's rulers do not want more bloodshed denunciations from their Western allies. In the early stage of the two-week-old rallies, troops had used lethal force.
The unrest is highly significant for Washington. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is the Pentagon's main counterweight against Iran's widening military ambitions. Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, meanwhile, is under pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf rulers not to yield to the Shiite-led protesters, fearing it could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran.
In the Arab world's poorest country, Yemen, tens of thousands marching in the capital of Sanaa demanded that their U.S.-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, step down. It was one of the largest crowds since protests erupted earlier this month.
A Muslim preacher who led Friday's prayer told protesters it was their religious duty to topple Saleh, describing him as a "devil who has driven us to the stone ages." Shouts from the crowd of "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," accompanied his words.
"We are coming to take you from the presidential palace," activist Tawakul Kermal told the gathering, addressing Saleh.
Yemen has a weak central government and an active branch of al-Qaida. Saleh has promised to step down after elections in 2013, but the demonstrators want him out now. Activists have been digging in, setting up encampments in some public areas.
A record crowd turned out Friday in Jordan, where Jordan's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has warned that citizens' patience is wearing thin with the government's "slow" moves toward reform.
Hamza Mansour, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for quicker steps to give Jordanians a bigger say in politics and to have them elect their prime minister — now selected by King Abdullah II. Mansour spoke to 4,000 Jordanian protesters, the largest crowd yet to take to the streets of downtown Amman for the pro-reform cause.
Associated Press writers Paul Schemm in Benghazi, Libya, Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Adam Schreck in Manama, Bahrain, contributed reporting.