CAIRO (AP) — Security forces opened fire to disperse crowds in Libya and Yemen as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets Friday across the Middle East, hoping to oust longtime leaders as in Tunisia and Egypt, or simply to bring about more political reforms.
The biggest demonstrations were in Yemen, where tens of thousands of people rallied in several cities — including the capital of Sanaa — calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the campaign against al-Qaida. He has promised to step down after national elections in 2013, an offer rejected by the opposition.
At least four people were killed and seven wounded when Yemeni soldiers armed with heavy machine guns shot at protesters throwing rocks at their army post in the northern town of Harf Sofyan. A witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal, said the soldiers apparently believed the protesters were trying to attack the post.
For the first time in Yemen, the protesters included hundreds of women, filling a square and nearby streets. The main speaker during prayers at Sanaa University, Yahia Hussein al-Deilami, told the gathering that "deposing a tyrant is a religious duty."
In the southern city of Aden, tens of thousands of people carried the coffins of three people killed last week.
In Libya's capital of Tripoli, more than 1,500 protesters marched from a mosque after noon prayers in the eastern district of Tajoura, chanting for the end of Moammar Gadhafi's regime and waving the red, black and green flag of the monarchy that predated his rule. Pro-Gadhafi forces quickly moved in, firing volleys of tear gas and — when the marchers continued — live ammunition, witnesses said.
It was not clear if they fired at the crowd or into the air, but the protesters scattered, many of them taking refuge back in the mosque, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. A doctor said several people were wounded and taken to a hospital.
Last week, Friday marches were met by barrages of gunfire from militiamen shooting into crowds, killing a still undetermined number. Since then, pro-Gadhafi forces have carried out a wave of arrests against suspected demonstrators, instilling fear in the most restive neighborhoods.
The fall of other parts of Libya to rebels has made control of the capital crucial for Gadhafi. His loyalists have taken fierce action to ensure protesters cannot rise up and overwhelm the city as they have in other places.
Protests following Friday prayers have become a weekly tradition throughout the Middle East and North Africa as activists seek to emulate successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Egypt's prime minister-designate, Essam Sharaf, appeared before thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square and pledged to do everything he could to meet their demands for political change.
"I draw will and determination from here," he told the estimated 10,000 demonstrators. "I will do my utmost to realize your demands," he said, pledging to step down if he fails.
Sharaf, who was carried into the square on protesters' shoulders, was picked by Egypt's military rulers on Thursday to replace Ahmed Shafiq — the last premier to be named by Hosni Mubarak before he was ousted. Sharaf also pleaded with protesters to turn their attention to rebuilding the country. Sharaf's government will serve in a caretaker capacity until parliamentary elections are held.
The military rulers who took control of the country from Mubarak also said a referendum on constitutional changes to allow for competitive parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on March 19.
Thousands of Iraqis rallied in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country in demonstrations that defied security checkpoints and a vehicle ban that forced many to walk for hours to the heart of the capital.
It was the second Friday in a row of Iraqi demonstrations — a show of force that has unnerved Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which is worried that the turmoil in the rest of the region has come to Iraq. Most of the protests were peaceful, but police used water cannons against demonstrators in the southern city of Basra and beat some journalists who were covering.
The protesters are demanding improved government services, better pay and an end to corruption in Iraq — reflecting the level of unhappiness many Iraqis feel nearly eight years after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
In Bahrain, thousands of protesters chanting slogans against the Sunni dynasty streamed toward state TV headquarters after sectarian clashes between Sunnis and the majority Shiites who led the demonstration in the strategic Gulf nation. Some women carried roses and placed them on the wall outside the TV compound.
The street fighting late Thursday was brief, but it underscored the tensions building after nearly three weeks of unrest that has left the tiny island kingdom in a stalemate between the Sunni monarchy and Shiite-led demonstrators who claim widespread discrimination and demand a greater voice in the nation's affairs.
In Jordan's capital of Amman, political opponents amplified their calls for the new prime minister to resign and demanded to be brought into a unity government to usher in swift reforms to open up the kingdom's politics.
Jordanians have held protests every Friday for more than two months to demand a greater political voice and action to reduce swelling poverty and unemployment. The weekly demonstrations have largely been peaceful and have not reached the level of violence seen elsewhere in the region, but tempers are flaring.
"Enough is enough, our patience has run out," shouted political independent Sufian Tal, reflecting the views of many among the 2,000 Jordanians who took to the streets.
The U.S.-allied King Abdullah II so far has not faced calls for his ouster, but protesters want him to give up the power to appoint the prime minister and the rest of the Cabinet.
Tunisia's new premier said he will present a new Cabinet in the coming days to help get beyond the renewed bout of violence in the North African country that led his predecessor to quit, and pull his country back from the "abyss."
Beji Caid-Essebsi's announcement is the latest step by Tunisia's interim leaders to stabilize the country after longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled amid protests in January — sparking unrest across the Arab world.
Maggie Michael in Tripoli, Libya; Bushra Juhi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Iraq; Sarah El Deeb in Cairo; Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia; and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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