Iranian-backed Shi’ite factions exhorted Iraqis to turn out for a “million-strong” march aimed at whipping up anti-American sentiment as the US struggle with Iran plays out on the streets of Baghdad.
Those behind the rally have two goals – pressure Washington to withdraw its troops out of Iraq and eclipse mass anti-government protests challenging their grip on power.
It is likely to end up at the gates of the US Embassy, the seat of US power in Iraq and the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound. It could turn nasty again.
The US killing of Iranian military mastermind General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad has given renewed impetus to Iran’s allies in Iraq.
It also raises the spectre of more civil strife in a country torn by years of sectarian conflict, lawmakers, protesters and analysts say.
“The assassination threw the political classes and Iran-leaning stakeholders in particular, a lifeline,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
“It created a counter cause and a counter-crisis that pushed protests from the news cycle – albeit briefly.”
The call for Friday’s “million-strong” march came from cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign interference in Iraq and recently aligned himself more closely with Iran.
Protesters camping out for months in Baghdad and southern cities demonstrating against the corrupt, Iran-allied government, fear the worst.
“This million-man march is different from what the street wants. It supports the current political system in the country, it doesn’t oppose it,” said Abdul Rahman al-Ghazali, a protester at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Ghazali and other demonstrators said their movement risked being side-lined by strength in numbers – and weapons – of those marching against the US.
“I am not going to take part in the upcoming protests against America,” said student Hussein Ali.
BRINK OF WAR
The killing of Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone attack brought Iraq and the wider region to the brink of war.
The biggest loser is Iraq. More than 5 000 US troops remain in the country 17 years after the invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.
After an unlikely alliance of Iraqi forces, a US-led coalition and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias defeated Islamic State in 2017, Iraq went through two years of relative calm.
Unrest that broke out in October when security forces began killing mostly peaceful demonstrators shattered the calm and US-Iran tension added to the chaos.
Protests are dominated by young people, a generation blighted by rampant unemployment, a corruption-ridden political class and years of conflict. Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many people languish in poverty.
More than 450 people died as security forces used live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas canisters on protesters, with battles raging on three bridges over the River Tigris leading to Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Friday’s march risks clashes between anti-government protesters and militia supporters who back the parties controlling government and parliament.
Analyst Haddad said anti-government protests would persist. Authorities should not fail to form a new government, he added.
Iraqi factions have wrangled for weeks over a successor to caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November under pressure from the street.
SECTARIAN DIVISIONS RESURFACE
The fallout from Soleimani’s killing laid bare further fracturing of Iraqi politics, among Shi’ite Muslims and again along sectarian lines dividing Shi’ites and Sunnis.
Sadr and Iran-aligned leaders intensified calls for US troops to withdraw – a rare show of unity between rival Shi’ite groups. The unity is not expected to last long and power struggles will continue, lawmakers say.
Disagreements between Sadr and his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri, whose alliance of Iran-backed militias holds sway in parliament, could delay the process further.
Sadr vetoed nomination of a new prime minister backed by Amiri this week, lawmakers said.
For the first time in two years, parliament voted along sectarian lines to press government to kick out US forces. Shi’ite parties voted in favour, while Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session.
“When Iraq faced the security challenge of IS there was a healthy political process, but now the country is broken and this is gone,” said a senior Iraqi politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.