BAGHDAD - Thousands of anti-government protesters, many carrying flowers and olive branches, walked for kilometers Friday to converge on the Iraqi capital's Tahrir Square to call for political change.
"They are coming like ants," said a police officer who declined to give his name. "They are coming from Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad." Najaf and Karbala are two Shi'ite cities south of the capital.
Iraqi forces were out in force in the blistering heat — it was over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Baghdad — and concrete barriers and razor wire blocked many streets leading toward the square.
Small buses inside the security cordon ferried protesters to the square's entrance. A little while later, ambulances were screaming down the same road in the opposite direction, carrying injured demonstrators.
By late afternoon, clouds of tear gas were drifting out of Tahrir Square. Shots were fired into the air as demonstrators pushed past the security forces; the crowd tried to pull down concrete walls blocking a bridge from the square to Baghdad's International Zone, home to key government buildings and foreign embassies.
A similar protest one week ago dissolved into a riot that left four people dead after protesters forced their way into the zone and stormed the prime minister's offices.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had called for Friday's march to be canceled to ease the pressure on Iraqi security forces, who already are taking part in an offensive against Islamic State extremists in Fallujah.
But few protesters were listening.
"We want our rights," demanded a group of women carrying olive branches. "We give them olive branches, they give us bombs," one veiled woman added.
Many protesters said they were angry about a recent wave of bombings in Baghdad — attacks that killed more than 100 people — and what they feel is the government's inability to protect them.
On Sunday night, the embattled prime minister announced the start of the fight to retake Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold that has been under IS control for more than two years.
Iraqi soldiers, Sunni militants and Shia militias, supported by U.S. coalition airstrikes, are attacking the city from different directions.
Humanitarian agencies are warning that thousands of civilians are trapped in the city and are being used as human shields by the extremists.