Baghdad, Iraq – As thousands of Iraqis headed to an upscale Baghdad neighbourhood, heeding influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s calls to participate in a million-man march, they had to contend with road closures and a heavier than usual security presence.
Sadr, head of Sairoon, the largest coalition bloc in parliament, has capitalised on rising regional tensions, which soared after the United States assassinated Iranian military general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil.
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The January 3 US military drone strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander of the pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shabi militias (also called the Popular Mobilisation Forces or PMF).
As calls for an end to interference grew louder, the Iraqi parliament on January 5 backed a nonbinding resolution for all foreign troops – including 5,200 US soldiers – to leave the country.
Those calls were renewed at Friday’s rally at Jadriya, a neighbourhood where politicians live and work.
“Today’s protest is a referendum called for by the Iraqi people who consider the presence of US forces within the country a danger to them and to the region,” civil servant Asad al-Hashemi told Al Jazeera.
“The US is the reason for the corruption and all of our misfortunes.”
He said the US presence stokes dissent and increases the likelihood of people “acting out against it on our terrain, thus turning Iraq into an ongoing battlefield for competing geopolitical interests.
“We want to reclaim our sovereignty back.”
A soldier stands in a building overlooking the protest in Jadriya neighbourhood of Baghdad [Emma Francis/Al Jazeera]
On Wednesday, Iraqi President Barham Saleh met US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The two leaders agreed on the need to keep US forces in Iraq, much to the consternation of the pro-Sadr protesters.
Mohammed Jasim al-Kinani, 55, one of the leaders of the southern Kinani tribe, called the Salih-Trump meeting “unacceptable”.
“The people should take it upon themselves to follow through the parliament’s vote of expelling US forces from Iraq,” he said.
‘Get rid of US forces’
The number of demonstrators suggested tens of thousands rather than a million, but their demands of an end to foreign interference – with particular emphasis on the US withdrawal – were vociferous nonetheless.
Mariam, an 18-year-old high school student, attended the protest with her mother and sisters.
“I’m here today to protest against the United States occupying our lands,” she told Al Jazeera. “We want to liberate our country from these chains of oppression. We’ve been suppressed and hurt by the US’s own interests in the region so we want them out of Iraq.”
Tribal leader Mohammed Jasim al-Kinani, right, said the Trump-Salih meeting on Friday where both leaders agreed to keep US soldiers in the country was ‘unacceptable’ [Emma Francis/Al Jazeera]
In addition to the sea of Iraqi flags, many protesters, young and old, had plain white flags tied around their shoulders – a tribute to Sadr’s late father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr.
The elder Sadr was known to wear a white cloth which symbolised a shroud, representing that he was ready for death whenever.
Thabet al-Yasiri, who is unemployed, travelled from Samawa, a southern city, to attend.
“This is my first time protesting since the anti-government demonstrations began last October,” he said. “First we have to get rid of the US forces, then we should focus on tackling government corruption and reforms.”
Ranging protest movements
Meanwhile, a separate and large anti-government protest movement centred in Tahrir Square has gripped the capital and the Shia-majority south for almost four months, with Iraqis demanding complete overhaul of the political landscape, early elections and more accountability.
At least 500 protesters have been killed, and while Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi stepped down, he continues to act in a caretaker capacity.
On Friday, protesters in Tahrir Square derided Sadr’s march as a show of support for the government.
“The Sadr current want an end to foreign interference by the same system we are protesting against,” protester Ali Adnan said, speaking from the barricaded Jumhuriyah Bridge just off Tahrir Square.
The 23-year-old, who is from the southern city of Basra, said the October protest movement is different because it is “youth-led” and not called for by a specific political party.
“We want a democratic, sovereign, national and transparent government – that’s all. We’re sick of these parties and the muhasasa [quota-based political] system,” Adnan said.
But several people in Jadriya expressed said that the two movements overlap.
“Today’s protest in Jadriya is calling for one of the same demands as the anti-government movement, which is an end to foreign interference and corruption,” Sheikh Hussein Karbalai, a cleric from Karbala, told Al Jazeera.
“We believe the US is the source of the corruption in this country and that’s one of the reasons they must get out of our affairs.”
Iraqis abducted, tortured for partaking in protests: UN report |NationalTribune.com
Dozens of Iraqi protesters disappeared during five months of anti-establishment demonstrations, with many being abducted and subject to ill-treatment and torture, a new United Nations report has said. The report (PDF), published on Saturday by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said all of those targeted had participated in protests or provided support…
Dozens of Iraqi protesters disappeared during five months of anti-establishment demonstrations, with many being abducted and subject to ill-treatment and torture, a new United Nations report has said.
The report (PDF), published on Saturday by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said all of those targeted had participated in protests or provided support to demonstrators demanding an overhaul of the country’s political system.
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In its fourth special report on the demonstrations in Iraq, UNAMI based its findings on accounts of incidents that took place between October 1, 2019, and March 21, 2020, and was able to verify the disappearance of 123 people. Of these, it confirmed the whereabouts of 98 people but said 25 remained missing or were in an unknown status.
According to interviews, at least 28 individuals were abducted in circumstances indicating that the perpetrators may be “armed actors commonly referred to as ‘militia'”, the report said.
All abductees interviewed described being forced into vehicles by armed or masked men in the vicinity of protest sites, or on their regular daily routes, with none reporting appearing before a judge.
While all were interrogated by their abductors, males in particular reported being subject to some form of ill-treatment, including “severe beatings, electrocution, hosing/bathing in cold water, hanging from the ceiling by the arms and legs, death threats and threats to the family, as well as degrading treatment”.
Although the report did not name who might be behind the abductions, it pointed to “the involvement of armed actors with substantial levels of organisation and access to resources”.
‘Justice and accountability’
The report said the abductions and disappearances occurred amid various incidents involving additional violations and abuses targeting activists and protesters, including “deliberate killings, shooting and knife attacks, threats and intimidation, and excessive and unlawful use of force” at demonstration sites.
Since the protests erupted in October last year, when frustrated Iraqis took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, unemployment and poor services, the UN has verified 490 deaths of activists and the injuries of 7,783 others.
Rights groups have accused security forces of using excessive force, including live fire and tear gas, against the demonstrators.
Iraq’s previous government repeatedly said it could not find the “unidentified gunmen” who fired on protesters.
But the country’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has promised to not hide the “the truth about everything that happened” during the months-long protests as well as to “hold to account all those who shed Iraqi blood”.
“The establishment of a high-level fact-finding committee by the new Government to investigate casualties and related harm is a crucial step toward justice and accountability,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, special representative of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for Iraq.
“The government’s commitment to provide medical treatment for injured demonstrators and compensation to the families of victims is encouraging.”
Al-Kadhimi also pledged earlier this month that all anti-government protesters would be released from detention – but courts have not acted so far.
In recent weeks, protesters have begun gathering again despite the outbreak of the new coronavirus.
An implosion of oil prices during the pandemic has raised concerns that Iraq will have little option but to impose austerity policies that could give rise to renewed demonstrations.
Protesters say the political parties that are responsible for the failures of the past government are still controlling Parliament, meaning their demand for a complete system overhaul remains in place.
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