Three protesters were shot dead in Iraq on Saturday in clashes with security forces clearing out streets and squares occupied for months by anti-government demonstrators, stoking fears of a wider crackdown.
The fresh violence came a day after populist cleric Moqtada Sadr announced he would no longer back the youth-dominated movement, instead holding his own rally in Baghdad to demand US troops leave Iraq.
Protesters feared the withdrawal of his support could pave the way for authorities to suppress their movement and by Saturday evening, clashes had broken out between riot police and demonstrators across Iraq.
In the southern flashpoint of Nasiriyah, two protesters were shot dead and some 20 wounded.
Another demonstrator was shot dead and more than 40 were wounded in skirmishes in Baghdad, a medical source said.
Since early Saturday morning, security forces had been using tear gas and live rounds to clear protest camps in the capital, with an AFP reporter seeing some wielding batons chase a group of young protesters.
A medic told AFP she saw riot police set fire to large tents used as field clinics to treat wounded demonstrators.
The city's military command announced it had retaken control of Baghdad's Ahrar Bridge, a flash point for clashes between security forces and demonstrators for months.
It also pushed protesters out of Tayaran Square and Mohammad Qasim highway, where new sit-ins this week were intended to pressure authorities into enacting long-awaited reforms.
Security forces had not yet entered the main protests camp in Tahrir Square, where young men had deployed carrying black shields made out of metal drums, on which they had painted the words "Tahrir Shield Squad".
Sadr supporters pull out
Sadr, a militiaman-turned-politician, is notorious for switching political positions with dizzying speed.
He backed the protests when they erupted in October and called on the government to resign -- even though he controls parliament's largest bloc and other top posts.
But last week, he called for a separate rally to demand 5,200 US troops leave Iraq, after a US strike on Baghdad killed top Iraqi and Iranian commanders earlier this month.
Thousands streamed into Baghdad for Friday's rally and while Sadr did not attend, he hailed the turnout and said he would no longer be involved in the anti-government campaign.
The about-face prompted Sadr supporters, who had earned the reputation as the most well-organised demonstrators, to dismantle their camps across the country.
In Hilla, Diwaniyah, Kut, Amarah and the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, tents were stripped down to their metal frames on Saturday.
In the southern port city of Basra, security forces stormed a protest camp and forcibly dispersed activists overnight, an AFP correspondent reported.
The tents were burned down and municipal staff were seen clearing the charred remains on Saturday to reopen the square.
But a crowd of protesters returned in the afternoon to try to resume their rally, clashing with security forces.
One young activist in Baghdad accused Sadr of greenlighting a wider crackdown by pulling political cover.
"When your people started leaving, the riot police came at 3:00 am and took the whole (Ahrar) Bridge. Why?" he asked angrily.