Thousands of supporters of populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr gathered on Friday in Baghdad to demand the ouster of US troops.
The march has gripped the capital and the Shiite-majority south since October, demanding a government overhaul, early elections and more accountability.
In the early hours of Friday, thousands of men, women and children of all ages in the Jadiriyah district of east Baghdad ask to “Get out, get out, occupier!” some shouted, while others chanted, “Yes to sovereignty!”
A representative of Sadr took to the stage at the protest site and called for all foreign forces to leave Iraq, the cancellation of Iraq’s security agreements with the US, the closure of Iraqi airspace to American military.
“If all this is implemented, we will deal with it as a non-occupying country — otherwise it will be considered a country hostile to Iraq,” the statement said.
The American military presence has been a issue in Iraq since a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside Baghdad airport on January 3.
Two days later, parliament voted for all foreign troops, including some 5,200 US personnel, to leave the country.
The vote was non-binding and the US special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State group, James Jeffrey, said Thursday there was no “real engagement” between the two governments on the issue.
Joint US-Iraqi operations against IS have been on hold since the drone attack, which triggered retaliatory Iranian missile strikes against US troops in Iraq.
Sadr, 46, battled US forces at the head of his Mehdi Army militia after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. He later branded himself a reformist and backed the recent anti-government protests when they erupted in October in Iraq.
Sadr controls parliament’s largest bloc and his followers hold top ministerial positions. His spokesman Saleh al-Obeidy hinted that while others in Iraq unequivocally blamed either the US or Iran for instability, Sadr would choose a middle path.
Harith Hasan of the Carnegie Middle East Center said Sadr was trying to sustain various protests.
Sadr position himself as the leader of a reform movement, as a populist, as anti-establishment. He also wants to sustain his image as the leader of the resistance to the ‘American occupation’,” partly to win favour with Iran.
This protest will show Sadr is still the one able to mobilise large groups of people in the streets — but it’s also possible he wants other groups to respond by giving him more space to choose the prime minister.
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