Thousands of Iraqis hold rally seeking US troops’ withdrawal - GulfToday

Thousands of Iraqis hold rally seeking US troops’ withdrawal


Supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr protest against US troops’ presence in Baghdad on Friday. Reuters

Thousands rallied in Baghdad on Friday to demand that American troops leave the country, though their numbers fell short of the “million-man” march called for by an influential cleric.

The rally came amid heightened anti-US sentiment after a US drone strike earlier this month killed a top Iranian general in the Iraqi capital.

Since mid-morning, large crowds gathered on the Muslim day of prayers as loudspeakers blasted “No, no America!” at a central square in Baghdad. A child held up a poster reading, “Death to America. Death to Israel.” But by the afternoon the rally had failed to reach the critical numbers called for by cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.

Apparently seeking to show control, Al Sadr’s supporters did not engage in altercations with security forces or target the separate, anti-government protests in neighbouring Tahrir Square, a possibility feared by activists in the lead-up to Friday’s march. Officials and experts said the rally was the cleric’s attempt to capitalise on brewing anti-American feeling and show he had the upper-hand on the Iraqi street as negotiations among political elites over who should be the next prime minister stumble on.

In his weekly Friday sermon, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s most revered cleric, called on political parties stop stalling and move the talks forward.

“The formation of the new government is constitutionally long overdue, it is necessary for the various parties concerned to cooperate,” Al Sistani said in a sermon delivered via a representative,” it is an important step towards resolving the current crisis.”

Roads and bridges leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government and home to several foreign embassies, including the US Embassy, were blocked off by concrete barriers. Iraqi security forces stood guard, blocking access to the gates to the zone.

There was a heavy security presence as the protesters, mostly Shiites hailing from the capital but also Iraq’s southern provinces, walked on foot to an assembly point in Baghdad’s Jadriya neighbourhood, waving Iraqi flags and wearing symbolic white shrouds.

Al Sadr, whose party won the most seats in the May 2018 parliamentary elections, had called for a “million-man” demonstration to demand the withdrawal of American troops following the US drone strike near Baghdad’s airport that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. The killing sparked the ire of Iraqi officials from across the political spectrum.

According to US military officials, rather than draw down, Americans have poured 20,000 additional troops in the Middle East to counter what Washington describes as an escalating threat from Iran. There are around 5,200 US troops in Iraq, where they help train and assist Iraqi forces in the fight against the Daesh group.

Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighbouring Iraq, but the US strike that killed Soleimani in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort.

In a statement on Friday, Al Sadr — whose followers fought US troops after the 2003 US-led invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein — issued a list of conditions for American military presence in Iraq. The list includes cancelling existing security agreements, closing US military bases, ending the work of American security companies and closing off access to Iraqi airspace.

If the conditions were met, the statement said, “the resistance will temporarily stop until the last soldier leaves Iraq,” Al Sadr said, referring to American troops.

Al Sadr, once a huge thorn in the side of the American occupation after the 2003 invasion, derives political capital from his ability to call on supporters to clog streets and paralyse all movement in Baghdad.

Friday’s rally came at a critical time as rival political blocs are jockeying over the selection of a premier to replace outgoing Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It was supported by mainstream Shiite parties, including that of Al Sadr’s political rival Hadi Al Ameri, who heads the Fatah bloc in parliament, as well as the Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella group comprised of an array of militias, including Iran-backed groups.

Associated Press

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