BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands rallied in Baghdad on Friday to demand that American troops leave the country, though their numbers fell short of the million-man march called for by an influential Shiite cleric amid heightened anti-U.S. sentiment after the drone that killed a top Iranian general at the Baghdad airport.
Since midmorning, large crowds gathered on the Muslim day of prayers as loudspeakers blasted "No, no America!" at a central square in Baghdad. A child held up a poster stating, "Death to America. Death to Israel." But by the afternoon the rally had failed to reach the critical numbers called for by the radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Apparently seeking to show control, al-Sadr's supporters did not engage in altercations with security forces or target the separate, antigovernment protests in neighboring Tahrir Square, a possibility feared by activists in the lead-up to the Friday march. Officials and experts said the rally was the cleric's attempt to capitalize on brewing anti-American feeling and show he had the upper hand on the Iraqi street as negotiations stumble on among political elites over who should be the next prime minister.
Roads and bridges leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government and home to several foreign embassies, including the U.S. 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 Shiites hailing from the capital but also Iraq's southern provinces, walked on foot to an assembly point in Baghdad's Jadriya neighborhood, waving Iraqi flags and wearing symbolic white shrouds.
Al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in the May 2018 parliament elections, had called for a million-man demonstration to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
According to U.S. military officials, rather than draw down, Americans have poured 20,000 additional troops in the Middle East to counter what Washington describes as an escalating threat from Iran. There are around 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq, where they help train and assist Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighboring Iraq, but the U.S. strike that killed Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort.
In a statement Friday, al-Sadr — whose followers fought U.S. troops after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein — issued a list of conditions for American military presence in Iraq. The list includes canceling security agreements, closing U.S. military bases, ending the work of American security companies and closing off access to Iraqi airspace.
If the conditions were met, "the resistance will temporarily stop until the last soldier leaves Iraq," al-Sadr said, referring to U.S. troops.
Al-Sadr, a huge thorn in the side of the U.S. occupation after the 2003 invasion, derives political capital from his ability to call on supporters to clog streets and paralyze movement in Baghdad.
Friday's rally came at a critical time as rival political blocs are jockeying over the selection of a premier to replace Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It was supported by mainstream Shiite parties, including that of al-Sadr's political rival Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Fatah bloc in parliament, as well as the Popular Mobilization Units, an umbrella group of an array of militias, including Iran-backed groups.
Al-Sadr "proved once again he can amass the crowds to take them to the street, cleverly prevented any targeting of protesters in Tahrir Square," tweeted Farhad Alaadin, head of the Iraqi Advisory Council and a former presidential adviser.
In response to a public outcry over the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani and militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraq's parliament passed a nonbinding resolution 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 Muqtada al-Sadr asks us."
Police and militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units also closed off roads leading to the protest site, in both Karada and Jadriya neighborhoods of Baghdad. In Tahrir Square, antigovernment protesters carefully eyed al-Sadr's anti-U.S. rally but no confrontation took place. As the anti-U.S. demonstration dwindled away by early afternoon, the antigovernment protesters remained in their sit-in.
"I am not against the Sadrist movement’s demonstrations today, but if Moqtada asks for the exit of the Americans and nonintervention, he should raise the same slogan against Iranian interference, to be honest," said one of the antigovernment protesters, Yahya Mohammed.
In neighboring Iran, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said the Baghdad march on Friday was a "countdown" to expelling U.S. forces.
"It indicated that Iraqi people are the flagship on the path of expelling the U.S. from the region," he said.
Cleric Mohammad Hassan Abutorabifard, who led Friday prayers in the Iranian capital, Tehran, told worshipers that Iraqis at the rally "stood by Iranians" after Soleimani's killing.
"The legitimacy of the West-appointed puppet rulers in the region has totally collapsed," he said.
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