Iraqi Shiite Cleric Holds Anti-U.S. Protest in Baghdad

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Thousands of supporters of an influential, radical Shiite cleric gathered Friday in central Baghdad for a rally to demand that American troops leave the country amid heightened anti-US sentiment after a drone strike ordered by Washington …
AP Photo

Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr arranged a sizable anti-American demonstration in Baghdad on Friday, putting his followers on the streets alongside ongoing protests against corruption and the excessive political influence of Iran.

Voice of America News estimated the size of Sadr’s crowd as “tens of thousands,” although the event was billed as a “million-man march.” The marchers reportedly did not engage in violent activity, suffered no injuries, and dispersed after a relatively brief demonstration.

The marchers chanted slogans such as “No, no, America” along with the familiar “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” They demanded the withdrawal of American troops following the elimination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. airstrike. Killed alongside Soleimani was one of his Iraqi underlings, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top commander of the Iraqi Shiite militia forces collectively known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

Iraqi Shiite politicians held a symbolic vote on Jan. 5 calling for the expulsion of American military forces, but the vote had no authority to compel the Baghdad government to ask the United States to leave. 

Iraqi President Barham Salih has dismissed demands for the expulsion of U.S. troops as a “bad idea.” Shiite militia leaders, prodded by Iranian state media, demanded Salih step down and threatened his life after he met with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

In addition to anger over his refusal to demand American forces leave, the Iran-backed Shiite forces dislike and distrust Salih because he is Kurdish. The PMU were instrumental in suppressing a Kurdish bid for independence in 2017.

Kurdish news service Rudaw noted that Friday’s protests included active participation by Kataib Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist group whose rocket attack on an American position in December killed a U.S. civilian contractor and precipitated the chain of events that led to the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Rudaw noted a Twitter message from an ally of Sadr, possibly a sock puppet account run by Sadr himself, that threatened American troops with violence if they remain in Iraq. The tweet included a photo of a flag-draped coffin carried by U.S. soldiers with the message, “The American people should say: Stop it.”

Sadr apparently took steps to keep his followers away from the long-running protests against government corruption, such as by avoiding Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protest marches in Baghdad. One of his spokesmen explicitly stated Sadr is not opposed to the goals of the protest movement. The anti-government protesters responded that Sadr and his people should keep away from Tahrir and other areas where they march and should make no attempt to co-opt their demonstrations.

Sadr said on Friday that he wants the U.S. out of Iraq as an “occupier” and wants to avoid dragging Iraq into a confrontation between America and Iran.

“We will spare no effort for the purpose of not embroiling Iraq into the fire of another war with the sinful occupation, which has committed crimes against Iraq,” he said.

Sadr offered a few concessions to the United States, presumably in the hope they would inspire American forces to withdraw. He called on Iraqi Shiite militia forces to halt violent “resistance” activities until U.S. troops have departed, he urged the Baghdad government to provide protection for all foreign embassies (Soleimani’s failed attempt to assault the U.S. embassy in Baghdad having led to his termination by airstrike), and he issued a vague warning to other countries not to intervene in “how we deal with the occupier” that seemed to be directed at Iran.

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