Thousands of demonstrators in Baghdad demand the departure of American troops
Thousands of supporters of Moqtada Sadr are rallying to demand the expulsion of US troops from Iraq, raising fears that anti-government protesters will be eclipsed.
Thousands of supporters of powerful Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr began gathering in Baghdad on Friday, January 24, to call for the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq, raising fears that anti-government protesters will be eclipsed. After Moqtada Sadr’s call for “a peaceful demonstration of one million people against the US presence”, checkpoints were erected in Baghdad to secure the march.
Early on Friday thousands of his followers, men, women and children, gathered in the Jadriyah neighborhood shouting “Out, out, occupier” or “Yes to sovereignty” and waving Iraqi flags. A stage, with the message “Iraq is the land of the prophets, there is no place for outsiders” as a backdrop, was set up without the names of any speakers being announced.
Several Iraqi paramilitary factions such as the pro-Iranian Hashd Al-Chaabi, usually rivals of Mr. Sadr, are expected to take part in the march. After having lost some of its momentum in the face of rising tensions between Tehran and Washington, sworn enemies but acting powers in Iraq, the protest movement has resumed more beautifully in recent days but fears to be dethroned by Friday’s march.
“Sadr does not represent us,” a teenager defiantly said Thursday on an artery in the capital blocked by anti-government protesters calling for early elections, an independent prime minister and an end to corruption.
The protest movement, which began on 1 October, was pushed into the background after the US assassination on 3 January in Baghdad of General Qassem Soleimani, Tehran’s envoy to Iraq, and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, his Iraqi lieutenant and number two in the Hashd, which had rekindled anti-American sentiment.
Two days later, the Iraqi parliament voted in favour of the departure of foreign troops, including 5,200 American soldiers deployed to help the Iraqis in the anti-Jihadist struggle. The operations of the Washington-led international anti-Jihadist coalition have been at a standstill since Soleimani’s death and discussions with Baghdad on the future of U.S. troops have not yet begun, according to the coalition’s U.S. coordinator, James Jeffrey.
Thousands of Moqtada Sadr supporters have arrived in Baghdad by bus from other parts of the country. The Jadriyah neighborhood where they are gathering is located on the bank of the tiger opposite the ultra-secure Green Zone, which houses the U.S. embassy and key state institutions, and many Iraqi officials and diplomats fear that pro-Sadr will storm it. Its many followers had already paralyzed the country by taking over the Green Zone in 2016 to push for government reforms.
“A politicized march”
A long-time opponent of the US presence in Iraq, Moqtada Sadr reactivated after the death of General Soleimani his militia “Mehdi Army”, which had fought US soldiers during the occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. A self-proclaimed “reformist” after supporting the protest movement, he also leads the largest bloc in parliament and several of his allies hold ministerial posts.
Friday’s march is “politicised”, denounced Mariam, an anti-power protester. “We are demonstrating in the name of the people. We are free. We can’t demonstrate in the name of a certain party”. The anti-government protesters berate not only the United States but also Iran, whose influence has grown in Iraq. They have revived their movement in recent days by blocking many roads in Baghdad and the south.
Twelve demonstrators have been killed in clashes this week with the security forces. The violence since the start of the protest has left 460 people dead, the majority of them protesters. Under pressure from the streets, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has resigned but continues to run the day-to-day business, as the political parties have been unable to agree on a successor.
For Harith Hasan, an expert at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, Moqtada Sadr is trying to play on several fronts by supporting various challenges. On the one hand, he is trying to position himself as a reformist leader (…) on the other hand he wants to keep his image as a leader of resistance to the “American occupation” “to win the favours of Iran, which wants the departure of American troops from the Middle East,” he explains.
“This march will show that Sadr is still capable of mobilizing the crowds,” and will, according to the expert, give him more legitimacy, if other groups join in, to influence the choice of the future prime minister.