Demonstrations continue despite attempts to derail protests after Soleimani’s killing

Demonstrators in Iraq shouted “No America and no Iran. Sunnis and Shias are all brothers.”
Sunday 19/01/2020
An Iraqi anti-government demonstrator waves the national flag as he protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir square, January 10. (AFP)
Reclaiming the country. An Iraqi anti-government demonstrator waves the national flag as he protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir square, January 10. (AFP)

Basra - Iraqi protesters said they have come under threats from Iran-backed militias following the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani but activists vowed to carry on demonstrations.  

Witnesses said masked gunmen killed Ahmed Abdelsamad, 39, a correspondent of Iraqi l Dijla TV, and his videographer Safaa Ghali, 37 as they were reporting on protests in Basra January 10.  

“Two 4×4 pickup vehicles and a motorcycle approached [the car of the journalists] in front of the Basra police station, opened fire and escaped. Ahmed died immediately inside the car and Safaa minutes later at hospital,” one witness said, on condition of anonymity.

“I could not tell how many were inside the [assailants’] vehicles but their cars were without plates. What surprised me is that the incident happened in front of the security forces’ eyes but they have done nothing.”

Observers said Abdelsamad and Ghali were assassinated because of their reporting on the protests, which often sheds an unfavourable light on the actions Iraqi militiamen and their Iranian backers.

Protesters marched January 17 in Basra to demand that authorities reveal the identity of those who killed the journalists and put them on trial. They called for an end to all violence against activists and journalists in Iraq.

Clashes between protesters and security forces erupted the same day in central Baghdad, killing two demonstrators and injuring over a dozen, according to officials.

Mass anti-government protests resumed January 10 in Baghdad and southern provinces after a brief interruption following the killing of Soleimani and Iran-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone strike January 3.

The strike was ordered by US President Donald Trump following attacks by the Iran-backed Al-Hashed al-Shaabi against the US Embassy in Baghdad. Hashed supporters said they were avenging the death of 25 members of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia killed in a US strike.

The latest message of the Iraqi protesters is that they don’t want Iraq to be in the crossfire of a war between Tehran and Washington.

Demonstrators shouted “No America and no Iran. Sunnis and Shias are all brothers.” They received vocal support from Iraq’s Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who used his Friday sermon to underscore the need for protecting Iraqi sovereignty and keeping the country out of regional and international battles.

Hashed supporters sought to capitalise on the death of Soleimani and Muhandis by derailing anti-government protests. They pressured Iraqis to go mourn the militia leaders in areas that used to draw anti-government protesters.

Hashed supporters, some of whom were armed, stormed al-Habboubi Square in Nasiriya on January 7 and clashed with anti-government demonstrators. Protesters were fired upon and their tents torched. At least six people were injured.

Kata’ib Hezbollah sought to force the protesters to take part in mourning ceremonies and its members assaulted those who openly refused to take part.

Similar tactics were carried out by Hashed supporters in Basra January 5. They staged a rival gathering during which mourners shouted “No, no America. Yes, yes Soleimani.” The Hashed supporters also reportedly resorted to violence.

“The mourners marched towards us to bring the funeral processions close to our tents, we asked

them to mourn in another place but they refused,” Abdullah al-Saleh, a 31-year-old Basra resident said.

“Soleimani is an Iranian figure and his funeral near us is a provocation to us because one of our demands is to get rid of Iran’s presence in Iraq,” said Saleh. “We were holding only Iraq’s flags and the mourners were carrying militias’ flags. They opened fire and set our tents on fire. Thanks to God, there were no deaths.”

Muhannad Shakir, a 28-year-old from Nasiriya, put some blame on the government. “The Iraqi government bears part of the responsibility in the Iran-US tensions. It is a part of the problem in all that has happened as it has not taken any tangible actions,” he said.

“Iran-backed militias brought their funeral close to the protesters in my city just to make a mess and chaos and to show the world that our demonstrations are not peaceful as they are

 looking for internal feud. Our protests are peaceful and will continue to be like that,” said Shakir.

“Maybe the mourners wanted to avenge Soleimani’s killing and they really got shocked when they saw Iraqis accept Soleimani’s death. I totally welcome Soleimani’s killing. I hope that move will curb the Iranian presence in our country.

Mass anti-government protests began in Iraq October 1, calling for jobs and basic services, radical changes to the political system and an end to corruption as well as to Iranian meddling in the country.

For Hashed supporters, the death of Soleimani is seen as a loss. They credited him with helping Iraq defeat the Islamic State.

“Soleimani’s killing is a humanitarian crime. It was a shock to me. We expressed our condemnation of his killing,” said Khairyah al-Salih, a 39-year-old in Baghdad.

“It is against Iraq’s sovereignty as Soleimani has been killed on Iraqi soil. I demand the government cancel the security agreement between Iraq and the United States and stop US troops from killing whoever they want.”

Ali Kareem Talib, an activist from Basra, branded the vote in the Iraqi parliament calling for the departure of US troops from Iraq “a stupid decision.” He added that the protest movement would not drop its demand to end Iranian meddling in Iraq.

“The mourners who were mostly affiliated with Iran-backed militias want to put an end to our protests but they could not do so as long as there are brave protesters on the ground,” said Talib.

Sarkawt Shamsulddin, a member of the Future bloc in parliament, said: “Iraqi protesters are already affected by the tensions between the US and Iran. The militias gained back some popularity but the continuation of the peaceful demonstrations will bring back the attention to them.

“I believe Iran’s influence in Iraq goes beyond the role of one person [like Soleimani]. In order to minimise foreign intervention in Iraq, we need to strengthen our institutions and bring back Iraq to its citizens.”