- Protest called after US killing of Iran general
- Shia cleric Sistani calls for respect of Iraqi sovereignty
Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad yesterday calling for the expulsion of US troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.
Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the US killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the US embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.
Throngs started gathering early yesterday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.
Marchers wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half-finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.
“We want them all out - America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City.
“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.
The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.
Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.
Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.
The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.
Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.
“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected ... and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shia majority.