Baghdad, Iraq – Thousands of protesters demanding an overhaul of Iraq’s political system turned out in cities across the country on Friday, in the first mass demonstrations since the US assassination last week of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Organisers had called for a million-person march against foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs, and in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, demonstrators continued to arrive from across the country late into the night.
The demonstrations came as caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation to begin discussions over the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, in line with a vote by Iraq’s parliament on Sunday, two days after the US air strike that killed Soleimani, al-Muhandi and others near Baghdad’s international airport.
The US State Department rejected Abdul Mahdi’s request.
In the capital’s Tahrir Square, scores of young men climbed the Turkish Restaurant, a half-constructed high-rise that has become a monument of the revolution, for panoramic views of the crowds and into the Green Zone.
“Maybe after the revolution, we’ll instal an elevator,” shouted one, panting after the marathon climb.
Atop the building, two young men unfurled a banner which read “Keep your war away from Iraq”.
Throughout the day, the atmosphere was jovial, with music blaring from speakers and young men dancing, stopping only to pose for photos.
There were few reports of violence, though a number of activists were arrested at a demonstration in Basra and later released.
A statement released by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah earlier in the week had hinted that the group may attack those found to be protesting, whilst an online campaign by supporters of influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr had attempted to encourage a boycott, claiming criticism of Iraq’s top Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was a step too far.
Since early October, protesters have poured onto the streets of Baghdad and towns and cities across the mostly Shia south to demand jobs, basic services and an end to corruption. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands of others wounded in clashes with security forces, amid accusations from rights groups that security forces used excessive force against protesters.
On the al-Jumhuriya bridge, Mustafa Brahim, 20, rallied a small crowd as he shouted that he wanted everyone gone. “British, Americans, Iranians – all of them,” he insists.
“If they want to fight, they can do it in their own land,” he added.
In one tent, a group of men from Nasiriyah stretched their legs after the 300km (186 miles) bus ride to the capital.
“It’s much safer to demonstrate here,” said one man called Haider.
“In Basra and Nasiriyah, if they cannot get you, they will go after your family. If they cannot get your family they will wait for you to leave the camp.”
Whilst much of the day’s events passed without clashes, the atmosphere in Tahrir Square turned sour as news of the killing of a journalist in Basra spread.
Ahmed Abdul Samad was shot just hours after posting a video to social media accusing militias of arbitrary arrests. Crowds quickly joined a procession through the city for his funeral.
As night fell, dozens of protesters hunched around a handful of televisions in tents, glued to Iraqi State TV, watching for further news of the incident.
After a peaceful 100th day of protests, some, like Mustafa, feared a long night ahead. “This is when the problems happen,” he said.