Iraqi protesters struggle to keep momentum despite al-Sadr's about-face

Seen as playing both pro and anti-Iran factions, al-Sadr endorsed the nomination of Mohammed Allawi as PM.
Sunday 16/02/2020
A poster of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, right, is hung in Tahrir Square during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, February 8. (AP)
A poster of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, right, is hung in Tahrir Square during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, February 8. (AP)

LONDON - Although they see their ranks dwindling, street protesters in Baghdad say they are committed to their movement even after 550 of them have been killed.

Since October 1, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have protested against a ruling system they see as corrupt, inefficient and beholden to Iran. Crowds gathered in Baghdad's usual protest spot of Tahrir Square after calls on social media to rally against corruption, lack of services and unemployment.

Over the past four months, activists have faced a growing campaign of arrests, kidnappings and assassinations that they say is aimed at snuffing out their movement.

The rallies spontaneously mushroomed into the biggest grass-roots uprising Iraq has seen in decades, with crowds hitting the streets of Baghdad and Shia-majority southern Iraq almost daily, except for a 3-week pause in October to allow for an annual Shia religious pilgrimage.

The cause has united a vast range of Iraqis: university students skipping class, clerics in robes thumbing prayer beads, old-school leftists and whole families waving Iraqi flags at their first protests.

The rallies are relatively decentralised with each city organising marches and chants but tent camps have sprung up across public squares to pressure authorities. The protests have seen women participate in and even lead rallies, which is extremely rare in conservative areas.

No single leader has emerged, a fact authorities used to discredit the movement but which activists say is a way to protect it against manipulation.

The demonstrations have not reached the Sunni-majority west, where most fear a protest would be cast as a revival of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime or the Islamic State's extremist hold.

Nor have they gripped the Kurdish north, where a separate ruling system governs daily affairs.

As the response to demonstrations grew increasingly violent, suspicion focused on pro-Iran militias. Protesters' demands escalated from an end to corruption and unemployment to electoral reform, an independent prime minister and a total government overhaul.

In December, they scored two partial victories: Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned and parliament passed new voting legislation. However, the measure fails to meet many of the protesters' demands, including smaller voting districts, and it has yet to be signed into law by Iraqi President Barham Salih.

After two months of political stalemate, parties named a replacement to Abdel-Mahdi -- Mohammed Allawi, a two-time communications minister, February 1. However, protesters rejected Allawi, saying he was selected by the very parties they had spent four months demonstrating against.

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seen playing both pro and anti-Iran factions, immediately endorsed Allawi's nomination despite the protesters' hostile stance. As protesters opposed the prime minister-designate, al-Sadr's die-hard followers -- identifiable by the blue caps they wear -- have waged deadly attacks against anti-Allawi camps.

On February 11, al-Sadr suddenly announced he was dissolving the "Blue Caps," the organised unit of his supporters accused of attacks in Baghdad and the south that left eight protesters dead.

"I announce the dissolution of the 'Blue Caps' and I do not accept the (Sadrist) movement's presence in and of itself at the protests, " al-Sadr posted on Twitter.

Allawi has until March 2 to form his cabinet, which would need a vote of confidence from parliament. That government would be expected to rule only until early parliamentary elections are held under a new electoral law, a major demand of demonstrators.

Allawi, who was nominated as a consensus candidate among Iraq's divided political parties, has promised an independent cabinet of technocrats.

Al-Sadr controls the largest parliamentary bloc and top ministerial positions in the current government but one of his senior aides said the new prime minister must not include members of the political elite in his new cabinet or Allawi would be toppled "in just three days."

The cabinet formation is rife with horse-trading, a process partially disrupted by the US killing January 3 of Iran's al-Quds Force leader Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who played an active role in Iraqi politics.

Top Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike and Tehran responded with ballistic missiles on an Iraqi base hosting US troops.

To mark 40 days since their deaths, top officials from the pro-Iran Al-Hashed al-Shabbi militia had a memorial service in Baghdad on February 11.

Al-Hashed sources said the network's military elite have been hiding in Iran since the strike out of fear of being targeted.

Struggling for relevance, discouraged by the authorities' intransigence and facing the hostility of al-Sadr's followers, the protesters are struggling to keep the momentum.

"I'm staying in Tahrir. Iraq is more important than my studies," said Mustafa, a university student who has vowed to carry on.

(With AFP)