Anyone relying on Western TV stations like CNN or the BBC for their news could be forgiven for believing that the people of Iraq have risen up in a mass popular protest, pouring on to the streets of Baghdad and other cities demanding the expulsion of all US troops from their country. This is far from a true portrayal of the demonstrations that have turned Baghdad into a battlefield.
There are, in fact, two main popular protests being played out on the streets of Baghdad. One is a mass demonstration staged by the powerful pro-Iranian caucus within parliament and country, urged on by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, head of Sairoon, the largest coalition bloc in parliament, seized the opportunity provided by the public reaction to the US assassination of Iranian military general Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil on January 3.
On January 5, the Iraqi parliament as a whole backed a nonbinding resolution for all foreign troops – including 5,200 US soldiers – to leave the country. Al-Sadr called on the nation to participate in a million-man march. People certainly responded, but as a matter of fact, none of the rallies in support of his call is believed to have reached this sort of level.
Al-Sadr’s efforts to rouse the nation received something of a setback on January 22 when Iraqi President Barham Saleh met US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Much to the dismay of the pro-Sadr protesters, the two leaders agreed on the need to keep US forces in Iraq.
The al-Sadr protest movement was, however, a late-comer to Iraq’s chaotic scene.
Ever since September 2019 the nation’s cities have been almost in lock-down as a result of genuine popular dissatisfaction with the corruption, inefficiency and failure of Iraq’s politicians and ruling class. For months in unprecedented displays of anti-Iran sentiment, demonstrators chanted “Out, out, Iran! Baghdad will stay free!”
The vast majority of demonstrators are young, and their lot is largely bleak. Despite Iraq’s petroleum wealth, young Iraqis have a one-in-five chance of living below the poverty line. One in four young people is unemployed.
In the early days al-Sadr was believed to be in sympathy with the demand for sweeping reforms and opposed to the government-led efforts to disperse the protesters. Those efforts originally involved Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, led by Qasem Soleimani, and resulted in hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded. Footage posted online showed Iraqis hitting pictures of Soleimani with their shoes, a scathing insult in Arab culture.
Those anti-government protests have shown little sign of weakening. What has happened is that some of its leaders have begun accusing the al-Sadr movement of supporting the government in its crackdown. In proclaiming that al-Sadr is pro-Iranian, they are of course correct.
Al-Sadr, who heads the biggest bloc in parliament, recently issued a statement on Twitter expressing his “disappointment” in those who had accused his rally of being pro-government. “From now on I will not interfere in these protesters’ affairs in either a negative or a positive way,” he wrote.
On January 25, people believed to be supporters of al-Sadr began packing up their tents and leaving sit-ins in central Baghdad. This coincided with a new onslaught by government security forces, which pushed closer to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the main anti-government protest camp, reopening several roads that were previously shut down by demonstrators.
At about noon local time security forces fired tear gas and live bullets at Khilani Square, a few hundred metres away from Tahrir Square, while riot police set fire to a number of protest tents on the nearby Sinak Bridge, sending a column of thick black smoke into the sky. A statement from the Baghdad Operations Command said key squares and roads that had previously been a focal point for protesters had been reopened for vehicle access.
According to media reports, some anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square blamed the violence on al-Sadr’s decision to cease his involvement in the protest movement. That was not a universal opinion. One al-Sadr supporter claimed that although some of the Shia leader’s followers had left Tahrir, the majority were still present.
“Al-Sadr did not order us in his statement to withdraw from the protests,” a 24-year-old law student asserted. “He was merely expressing his disappointment in those in Tahrir Square who have been criticizing him and his motives.”
Even al-Sadr’s most devoted supporters would find it difficult to square the aims of the two main protest movements that are shaking the nation to its core. On the one hand there is a mass demand for an end to corruption within the bureaucracy, a clearing out of those who have permitted the country to become an Iranian stronghold, and a new democratic accountable form of government . On the other, the strong pro-Iranian faction that has embedded itself within Iraq’s body politic is calling for the country’s shield against Islamist extremism, as represented by Iran and the IRGC, to be removed.
The two mass protest movements are scarcely reconcilable. One can only hope that they do not turn on each other and plunge the nation into a civil war.