Baghdad, Iraq – As thousands of Iraqis headed to an upscale Baghdad neighbourhood, heeding influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s calls to participate in a million-man march, they had to contend with road closures and a heavier than usual security presence.
Sadr, head of Sairoon, the largest coalition bloc in parliament, has capitalised on rising regional tensions, which soared after the United States assassinated Iranian military general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil.
The January 3 US military drone strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander of the pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shabi militias (also called the Popular Mobilisation Forces or PMF).
As calls for an end to interference grew louder, the Iraqi parliament on January 5 backed a nonbinding resolution for all foreign troops – including 5,200 US soldiers – to leave the country.
Those calls were renewed at Friday’s rally at Jadriya, a neighbourhood where politicians live and work.
“Today’s protest is a referendum called for by the Iraqi people who consider the presence of US forces within the country a danger to them and to the region,” civil servant Asad al-Hashemi told Al Jazeera.
“The US is the reason for the corruption and all of our misfortunes.”
He said the US presence stokes dissent and increases the likelihood of people “acting out against it on our terrain, thus turning Iraq into an ongoing battlefield for competing geopolitical interests.
“We want to reclaim our sovereignty back.”
On Wednesday, Iraqi President Barham Saleh met US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The two leaders agreed on the need to keep US forces in Iraq, much to the consternation of the pro-Sadr protesters.
Mohammed Jasim al-Kinani, 55, one of the leaders of the southern Kinani tribe, called the Salih-Trump meeting “unacceptable”.
“The people should take it upon themselves to follow through the parliament’s vote of expelling US forces from Iraq,” he said.
‘Get rid of US forces’
The number of demonstrators suggested tens of thousands rather than a million, but their demands of an end to foreign interference – with particular emphasis on the US withdrawal – were vociferous nonetheless.
Mariam, an 18-year-old high school student, attended the protest with her mother and sisters.
“I’m here today to protest against the United States occupying our lands,” she told Al Jazeera. “We want to liberate our country from these chains of oppression. We’ve been suppressed and hurt by the US’s own interests in the region so we want them out of Iraq.”
In addition to the sea of Iraqi flags, many protesters, young and old, had plain white flags tied around their shoulders – a tribute to Sadr’s late father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr.
The elder Sadr was known to wear a white cloth which symbolised a shroud, representing that he was ready for death whenever.
Thabet al-Yasiri, who is unemployed, travelled from Samawa, a southern city, to attend.
“This is my first time protesting since the anti-government demonstrations began last October,” he said. “First we have to get rid of the US forces, then we should focus on tackling government corruption and reforms.”
Ranging protest movements
Meanwhile, a separate and large anti-government protest movement centred in Tahrir Square has gripped the capital and the Shia-majority south for almost four months, with Iraqis demanding complete overhaul of the political landscape, early elections and more accountability.
At least 500 protesters have been killed, and while Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi stepped down, he continues to act in a caretaker capacity.
On Friday, protesters in Tahrir Square derided Sadr’s march as a show of support for the government.
“The Sadr current want an end to foreign interference by the same system we are protesting against,” protester Ali Adnan said, speaking from the barricaded Jumhuriyah Bridge just off Tahrir Square.
The 23-year-old, who is from the southern city of Basra, said the October protest movement is different because it is “youth-led” and not called for by a specific political party.
“We want a democratic, sovereign, national and transparent government – that’s all. We’re sick of these parties and the muhasasa [quota-based political] system,” Adnan said.
But several people in Jadriya expressed said that the two movements overlap.
“Today’s protest in Jadriya is calling for one of the same demands as the anti-government movement, which is an end to foreign interference and corruption,” Sheikh Hussein Karbalai, a cleric from Karbala, told Al Jazeera.
“We believe the US is the source of the corruption in this country and that’s one of the reasons they must get out of our affairs.”