Thousands gather for Baghdad rally to demand US troops leave

BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of supporters of an influential, radical cleric gathered yesterday in central Baghdad for a rally to demand that American troops leave the country amid heightened anti-United States (US) sentiment after a drone strike ordered by Washington earlier this month killed a top Iranian general in the Iraqi capital.

Since mid-morning loudspeakers blasted “No, no America!” at a central square in the Iraqi capital.

Roads and bridges leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government and home to several foreign embassies, including the US Embassy, were blocked off by concrete barriers. Iraqi security forces stood guard, blocking access to the gates to the zone.

There was a heavy security presence as the protesters, mostly hailing from the capital but also Iraq’s southern provinces, walked on foot to an assembly point in Baghdad’s Jadriya neighbourhood, waving Iraqi flags and wearing symbolic white shrouds.

Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most number of seats in the May 2018 Parliament elections, had called for a “million-man” demonstration to demand the withdrawal of American troops following the US drone strike near Baghdad’s airport that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, sparking the ire of Iraqi officials from across the political spectrum.

Anti-government protesters continue to shutdown a key highway in downtown Baghdad, Iraq. PHOTO: AP

In a statement yesterday, al-Sadr — whose followers fought US troops after the 2003 US-led invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein — issued a list of conditions for American military presence in Iraq. The list includes cancelling existing security agreements, closing US military bases, ending the work of American security companies and closing off access to Iraqi airspace.

If the conditions were met, the statement said, “The resistance will temporarily stop until the last soldier leaves Iraq,” al-Sadr said, referring to American troops.

Yesterday’s rally is supported by mainstream parties, including that of al-Sadr’s political rival Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Fatah bloc in Parliament, as well as the Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella group comprised of an array of militias.

In response to a public outcry over the US airstrike that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Iraq’s Parliament passed a non-binding resolution this month, calling on the government to expel foreign troops from the country. Kurdish and most Sunni lawmakers boycotted the vote.

“The American forces should leave,” said an 18-year-old protester, Amer Saad.

“I am ready to fight against the Americans if Moqtada al-Sadr asks us.”

Police and militiamen of the Popular Mobilisation Units also closed off roads leading to the protest site, in both Karada and Jadriya neighbourhoods of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr, once a huge thorn in the side of the American occupation after the 2003 invasion, derives political capital from his ability to call on supporters to clog streets and paralyse all movement in Baghdad.