Baghdad, Iraq – Anti-government protesters in Iraq have struck a defiant tone at their main sit-in encampment in the capital, Baghdad, as continuing clashes with security forces continued for a third day.
The central Tahrir Square was a bustle of activity on Monday. Protesters took advantage of the warm sun to air out blankets and mattresses soaked from days of rain.
Street vendors selling battery packs, mobile chargers and assorted knickknacks crowded the square, where various nationalistic songs blared from the speakers.
A few hundred metres away, at Khilani Square, one of the front line battle spots of the protest movement, security forces fired tear gas and live bullets on protesters in an attempt to force them back to Tahrir.
On Saturday, riot police briefly managed to push those protesters back by shooting at them and setting tents on fire.
In the southern cities of Nasiriya, Basra and Diwaniyeh, clashes erupted as security forces attempted to overrun the main protest squares and barricades set up by the demonstrators.
At least two protesters were killed overnight on Monday in Nasiriya after unknown gunmen in pick-up trucks shot at them.
The crackdowns on Saturday came shortly after influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who also heads the largest bloc in Parliament, announced he is withdrawing his support to the protests.
Al-Sadr’s decision came a day after tens of thousands of his supporters crowded Baghdad’s Jadriya neighbourhood on Friday, calling for the removal of US and Iranian forces from the Iraqi soil.
Sadr took a ‘wrong decision’
Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon bloc opposes foreign interference, had initially joined the anti-government protests a few weeks after they took off last October, as Iraqis from different backgrounds and ages banded together to call for a complete overhaul of what they considered a corrupt ruling elite.
The Shia leader’s support bolstered the movement with numbers, supplies and protection from the powerful pro-Iranian armed groups.
But al-Sadr’s withdrawal has prompted his supporters to pack up their tents and leave, which the anti-government protesters said led to the recent attacks by security forces on their sit-ins.
“Al-Sadr’s decision was wrong in my opinion and hurt us because it opened the doors for those who are against us and the Sadrists to attack us,” said Umm Aqeel, a protester who has been a permanent fixture at Tahrir Square since October 25.
“We acknowledge the sacrifices the Sadr bloc has made and the support they have given us, but they should be standing here with us on the side of the oppressed people,” she added.
Umm Aqeel, who leaves her house every morning and spends the entire day and most evening hours at Tahrir, says she supports the protesters in any way she can, “by giving them food, blankets, mattresses and medicine”.
“On Saturday, our tents were burned. So we decided to set up tents made from metal,” she said. “In Nasiriya, they are replacing tents with brick structures.”
“I respect Sayyid Muqtada, but unfortunately there are infiltrators within parties who are trying to create a rift between us and the Sadrists, who we can’t deny have held some sway in the protest movement,” she added.
‘Under umbrella of independent Iraq’
According to Ali al-Abadi, a surgeon who has been going to Tahrir Square since October 1, at least 430 people have been wounded since the latest escalation began on Saturday.
“When we began protesting, it was under the umbrella of an independent Iraq, not a specific political party or group,” he told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, any bloc that decides to leave the protest site does not affect us. We are capable of protecting ourselves, as the last few days have shown.”
Al-Abadi said the Sadrists leaving the protest sites has not affected the mood of the anti-government protesters. He insisted he bore no ill will towards them, who he described as “brothers” to the movement.
“We are both calling for an end to corruption but we have different paths to achieve that,” he said.
“Personally speaking, I have no issues with them and if they come back to the sit-in, we will welcome them with open arms.”
But other protesters were not so forgiving, casting doubts on the intentions of Sadr’s supporters.
Abu Siwar, a 22-year-old protester who has been camping inside a Turkish restaurant overlooking the square, told Al Jazeera that Sadrists leaving had done the protest movement a favour as it reverted back to its non-partisan nature.
“When we first took to the streets to protest in October, we did so out of our own convictions and need for a new political system and a better future for us,” he said.
“We did not go to the streets in response to a call from any political party or minister or religious figure. As activists, as a society, we protested together and our ideas evolved from there. We are a popular youth-led movement.”
Abu Siwar saw the Sadrists’ involvement in protests as one based on following orders of their leaders rather than conviction.
“Their withdrawal has achieved the opposite effect of breaking up the movement,” he said. “We have had more protesters joining in. On the day Sadr declared his decision, the entire area from Tahrir Square to Tayaran Square was full of people, waving only the Iraqi flag.”
US embassy attack
Meanwhile, overnight on Monday, at least five katyusha rockets targeted the US embassy inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the US military said in a statement.
It was the third attack on the embassy this month since the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi head of Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces or PMF) on January 3.
There has been no claim of responsibility for any of the attacks. But the US has accused Iran-backed militias of targeting its interests by attacking military bases housing Americans and diplomatic missions.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the attack in a statement, asserting Iraq’s commitment to protecting diplomatic missions in the country.
But according to political analyst Hashem al-Hashemi, the US is losing patience with Abdul Mahdi’s failure to curb the influence of pro-Iranian armed groups.
“It is certain the US will not renew its confidence in Abdul Mahdi and trust him to form a new government,” al-Hashemi told Al Jazeera. “The US wants him to restrain the PMF, but that is complicated by the fact that they are his last allies.”