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Overshadowed By U.S.-Iran Escalation, Iraq Protesters Keep Movement Alive

Iraqi demonstrators try to pull down concrete walls during the ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq November 24, 2019.

As the recent escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions overshadowed Iraq's protest movement, the demonstrators demanding overhaul of the political system vowed to keep street pressure on the ruling elite “until victory”.

News of the ongoing protests in Baghdad and several center-south cities topped Iraq stories for three months until the last day of 2019 when the U.S. Embassy was attacked by pro-Iran crowds.

That incident was followed three days later by the killing of General Qassem Soleimani leader of the Qods (Quds) Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes deputy chief of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) "al-Hashd al-Sha'bi" in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad airport.

The storming of the U.S. Embassy compound was carried out with surprising ease by pro-Iran militia compared to multiple futile attempts by the protesters at Baghdad's Tahrir Square to reach the Green Zone since last October when the demonstrations first started against corruption, unemployment and poor services. The anti-government protesters also chanted slogans against Tehran's influence in the country, and on several occasions attacked Iranian consulates in the cities of Najaf and Karbala. But the protesters' attempts to cross bridges leading to the Green Zone cost them scores of dead and wounded in clashes with the security forces.

As soon as the news of protests at the U.S. embassy broke out December 31, the protesters in Tahrir Square distanced themselves from it. They issued a statement calling on protesters not to leave the square in addition to maintaining the movement's peaceful nature.

Anti-government demonstrators altogether disassociated themselves from pro-Iran supporters of PMF. "What happened in front of the U.S. Embassy was an attempt to draw people's eyes away from the popular protests now in their fourth month," Ahmed Mohammad Ali, a student protester in the southern city of Nasiriya, told Agence France-Presse. He added, "We're still here, protesting for change and hoping for victory."

An estimated 460 people have been killed in protest-related violence over the past three months, with about 25,000 others reportedly wounded.

But the long, drawn-out protest movement which called for wide-ranging reforms but also denounced Tehran's not-so-discreet interventions in Iraq’s internal affairs seems to be suddenly upended by heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Reuters reported on January 5 that many Iraqis "including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing him and Muhandes on Iraqi soil and potentially dragging their country into another conflict."

But in Nasiriya, at least one protester was killed and three were wounded when militia members carrying symbolic caskets for Soleimani and Muhandes tried to enter their protest camp and gunshots were fired, police and medical sources said.

In a report headlined "Protesters in South Iraq Chanting No to the American and Iranian Occupations", Baghdad's Azzaman daily said on January 5 that demonstrators in the cities of Nassiriya, Diwaniya, Kut and Amara chanted on Sunday slogans against both Iran and the U.S. as "occupiers", in expression of anger and fear that tensions between Washington and Tehran were derailing their anti-government movement.

"We're taking a stance against the two occupiers: Iran and the U.S.," one demonstrator in Diwaniya told AFP.

Another protester was quoted as saying, "We refuse a proxy war on Iraqi territory and the creation of crisis after crisis."

A similar mood was reflected in the shrine city of Karbala where student Ahmad Jawad denounced Soleimani's killing and the ensuing violence. He added, "We refuse that Iraq becomes a battlefield for the U.S. and Iran, because the victims of this conflict will be Iraqis."

On January 5, Al Hadath news channel showed footage of a group of protesters in Baghdad's Tahrir Square chanting on Sunday, "No to Iran, No to America." This was a noted difference from the previous popular slogan of "Out, Out Iran".

Commenting on the impact of escalation between Washington and Tehran, Ghassan Al-Attiyah, director of the Iraqi Institute for Development and Democracy, said the U.S. attacks appeared to have played into Iran's calculation and will primarily harm the protest movement. He added in a Deutsche Welle interview, "Forces linked to Tehran could now give the impression that the most important thing is to fight the U.S. presence in the country."

On January 5, Iraq's parliament passed a resolution calling for an end to all foreign troop presence. It was backed by most Shiite members of parliament, who hold a majority of seats, while many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session.

The resolution commits the government to take the necessary measures ending the agreement of military cooperation with the U.S. and other coalition partners, saying, "The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason." But being a just a caretaker since the resignation of its prime minster Adel Abdul Mahdi at the demand of the protest movement on November 30, legal experts say the government is not empowered to take executive action on such important issues relating to binding agreements and treaties with foreign states.

Since Abdul Mahdi's resignation, the protesters who continue to stage daily anti-government demonstrations have rejected all nominees for the PM post who are not independent or are known to have been members of ruling parties with strong links to Iran.

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    Nabil Ahmed

    Nabil Ahmed is a former broadcast journalist at RFE/ RL's Iraq Service and an author writing about Iraq and the region. He is an occasional contributor to Radio Farda from Baghdad, Iraq