Issue of US troop presence spills over onto Iraqi streets
LONDON - The controversy of US troops deployed in Iraq spilled onto Iraqi streets after supporters of influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rallied in Baghdad demanding the end of America’s military presence.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters attended what al-Sadr had dubbed a “million-man march” seeking the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. “Get out, occupier,” protesters chanted as they marched through Baghdad’s streets, “Yes to sovereignty.”
Although the initial protests were peaceful, at least two protesters were killed and 25 injured in clashes with security forces in Baghdad.
The anti-US demonstration, which took place after Friday prayers January 24, buttressed al-Sadr’s leadership ambitions but also showed his ambiguous position towards Tehran’s role in Iraq. While many at the protest focused their ire on Washington, al-Sadr spokesman Saleh al-Obeidy stressed that al-Sadr was seeking a middle path between blaming the United States and Iran.
“We believe that both are behind this ruin and al-Sadr is trying to balance between the two,” Obeidy said in comments broadcast by Iraqi state TV.
Experts see al-Sadr playing a new risky role by defending Tehran’s agenda in Baghdad and associating himself closely with pro-Iran Iraqi militias.
The protests seemingly upended attempts by Iraqi President Barham Salih and US President Donald Trump to smooth out differences during a meeting at Davos.
“We are obviously working on a lot of things together. We’re working on military. We’re working on [the Islamic State] ISIS. We have a whole host of very difficult things to discuss and some very positive things also. And we’ve been friends and the relationship is very good,” Trump was quoted in a January 22 White House statement as saying.
“We have had a very good conversation with the president [Trump] and we had a very candid conversation [about] the need for basically restraint, calming things down,” Salih said. “This is not time for another conflict. In my conversations with many actors in the region… almost everybody is saying ‘This is getting out of hand. Please cool it down. Restraint.’”
It was the first meeting between Salih and Trump since Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed January 3 in Iraq by a US drone strike.
Although Baghdad asked Washington to prepare for a US troop withdrawal from Iraq in line with a non-binding request passed by Iraq’s parliament after Soleimani’s assassination, Washington has appeared disinclined to do so.
Responding to a question regarding Washington’s plans for withdrawal from Iraq, Trump said: “We’re down to a very low number. We’re down to 5,000. So, we’re down to a very low number — historically low and we’ll see what happens.”
“These are challenging times, difficult times,” Salih said during a news conference with Trump. “We have had an enduring relationship and the United States has been a partner to Iraq and in the war against ISIS. This mission needs to be accomplished.”
Kaitaib Hezbollah, whose leader Muhandis was killed in the US drone attack and which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, threatened Salih with dire consequences should he meet with the US president. His threats did not influence Salih but signalled an intent by Iraq’s Shia militias to play an even more aggressive role defending Iran’s interests in their country’s politics.
Speaking at Davos, however, Salih stressed what Iraq and the United States had in common. “We have a lot of common interests — the fight against extremism; stability in the neighbourhood; a sovereign Iraq that is stable, a friend of its neighbours and a friend of the United States.”