Jan 24, 2020
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Protesters Mass in Baghdad, Demanding U.S. Leave Iraq

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BAGHDAD — Throngs of Iraqis gathered on the streets of the capital, Baghdad, in the early hours of Friday to protest the United States military presence in the country at the behest of a leading populist cleric and of armed forces with ties to Iran.

The demonstration comes three weeks after the United States launched a drone strike in capital that killed the Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and a prominent member of the Iraqi government, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, with close ties to the Popular Mobilization Forces, some of whom are close to Iran.

Days later, at the urging of the Iraqi prime minister, the Parliament endorsed a measure demanding the expulsion of foreign forces from Iraq, which in the minds of most Iraqis meant American troops. The protest on Friday was the first designed specifically to denounce the American presence in Iraq since the parliamentary measure.

Organizers had hoped for a larger turnout than anything in recent years, but estimates by the Iraqi Security forces as the march wound down suggested they might be disappointed. Counts of aerial views of the marchers put the numbers at around 200,000 to 250,000.

“Participating in this demonstration is like voting in a referendum on the decision of the Iraqi Parliament” to expel American forces, said Sheikh Satar al-Shimmari, from Diyala Province, who was organizing busloads of people to attend.

Many marchers carried the same signs, most of them written in English and aimed at an American audience. One read: “To the families of American soldiers. Insist on the withdrawal of your sons from our country or prepare their coffins.”

Another read: “America, the Devil; You have no mercy.”

Others were simpler: “No America.”

Some people waved flags and a number who were followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist and anti-American Shiite cleric, wore a large white scarf or cape to signal their willingness to die for their cause. The white cape is a nod to the white shroud in which all Muslims are buried.

Wandering through the crowds was Ali Mohammed, 70, in long worn robes, selling small cups of traditional Arabic coffee poured from a battered brass beaker. Asked what he thought about the demonstration, he shook his head.

“What benefit will Iraq get if the American troops leave?” he asked. “Look at my condition, at my age, I am still doing this, will it change if the Americans leave?”

He shook his head.

The protest was concentrated in Baghdad, and people were brought in from other cities to participate rather than holding smaller simultaneous demonstrations across the country.

Although the event was carefully organized and scripted by Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist anti-American Shiite cleric, and given heft by Iraqi armed groups close to Iran, it also reflected a genuine desire shared by Iraqis to have a government and economy that serves the Iraqi people and not outside interests, many participants said.

Delivering on that may prove to be virtually impossible. But the United States’ recent actions in Iraq drew the wrath of many and distaste even among some Iraqis who support the United States presence.

It is particularly galling to many that the United States still has troops in Iraq and many people point out that while Iran also has influence, it does so without imposing its troops on the country. The armed groups that are part of the Popular Mobilization, even though they are backed by Iran, are not perceived in the same way.

“We don’t need any foreign troops to be in Iraq, we need Iraq for Iraqis,” said Hoda Hashimi, an employee in the Ministry of Trade in Baghdad. “We don’t want Americans to leave, we want the troops to leave — we want America to support our country but with contracts, not troops.”

This demonstration — unlike those in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, which have gone on for months and involve a ragtag group of antigovernment protesters with homemade signs and a range of backgrounds — is heavily orchestrated rather than a spontaneous outpouring of feeling.

Participants were recruited, transported by buses provided by the organizers and given signs, flags and sometimes food. The vast majority of the participants are Shiite Muslims, who are the main constituency of the cleric Mr. al-Sadr and the armed groups close to Iran.

“The organizers of the demonstration in the southern city of Najaf called the Sadr followers, including me, and told us that there are buses and cars to transport the demonstrators from Najaf to Baghdad on Thursday at 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.,” said Mohammed Ali, 33, a taxi driver.

He said most of his colleagues had also agreed to participate, for many reasons, among them their admiration of Mr. al-Sadr and for personal interests and opportunities.

The buses bringing participants to Baghdad, especially from the south, belong to organizations aligned with the political wings of armed groups close to Iran. Tourism companies headed by people with links either to Mr. al-Sadr or to the militias were also involved, according to several people who were coming from Basra, Najaf and Diyala provinces, among others.

But not everyone, even those in the strongholds of Shiite faith and political power, felt comfortable participating.

“I reject this kind of protest — it is an abuse of the American and foreign presence,” said Mahdi al-Zubaydi of Dujail, a city north of Baghdad.

“It sets a dangerous precedent that could allow Iran and its militias to control the wealth of Iraq and its people,” he said.

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