Anti-US rally in Iraq

Baghdad: Supporters of volatile Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr prepared for a “million-strong” march in Baghdad to demand the ouster of US troops, putting the protest-hit capital on edge. The march has rattled the separate, months-old protest movement that has rocked the capital and Shiite-majority south, where young Iraqis have demanded a government overhaul, early parliamentary elections and more accountability.

After defying violence that has left 470 people dead as well as a spree of kidnappings and intimidations, those protesters fear their cause could be eclipsed by Sadr’s powerplay. “Sadr doesn’t represent us,” one teenager said defiantly late Thursday on a blocked-off thoroughfare in Baghdad.

America’s military presence in Iraq has become a hot-button issue in the country since a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on 3 January outside Baghdad’s international airport.

Two days later, parliament voted for all foreign troops — including some 5,200 US forces — to leave their country. Sadr, long opposed to US troops being in Iraq, decided to take that momentum to the street and called for “a million-strong, peaceful, unified demonstration to condemn the American presence and its violations”. Several pro-Iran factions from the Hashed al-Shaabi military force, usually rivals of Sadr, have backed his call and pledged to take part on Friday.

By late Thursday afternoon, new checkpoints cropped up across Baghdad aimed at securing the protest area. In the shrine city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, large buses were seen picking up Sadr supporters to bring them to the capital for the rally. To head off the anti-US gathering and ramp up pressure on authorities to enact reforms, young anti-government demonstrators shut down streets in Baghdad and across the south this week with burning tyres and metal barricades.

Protester Mariam said Friday’s rally would be “politicised by certain factions or sides”. “We’re protesting in the people’s name. We’re free. We can’t demonstrate in the name of a particular party or sect,” she said. When Sadr announced plans for the rally last week, many feared he would hold it near Tahrir Square — the beating heart of the anti-government protests in Baghdad. But his spokesman Saleh al-Obeidy said late Wednesday that they had chosen the neighbourhood of Jadiriyah, near Baghdad University, as the gathering place.

That, in turn, has sparked worry that angry crowds could attack the presidential palace or the high-security Green Zone, which houses the US embassy. The move would not be without precedent for Sadr, who urged followers to storm the Green Zone in 2016 in a challenge to the government over undelivered reforms.