Hundreds of thousands turn out in Iraq for anti-US and anti-Israel rally

Hundreds of thousands turn out in Iraq for anti-US and anti-Israel rally

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were bussed to Baghdad for a massive rally against the US presence in the country. It is the result of weeks of US tensions with Iran and the result of US airstrikes on an Iraqi militia called Kataib Hezbollah. Kataib Hezbollah plays a key role in Iraq’s paramilitary forces and its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed alongside Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3. Although, the protest were against the US many carried flags calling for death to Israel or walked on Israeli flags to show their opposition to Israel. This is because behind the scenes pro-Iran factions helped hand out anti-Israel material.The protests represent a temporary alliance between Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest party in Iraq, and the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi) who are influential in the second largest Iraqi party, the Fatah Alliance. On Friday the hundreds of thousands came from parts of southern Iraq. They were in contrast to the three months of protests that have already rocked Baghdad and southern Iraq and which have generally opposed Iran and the pro-Iranian paramilitaries of the PMU. This put a combustible mix together and illustrates the divisions in Iraq and also the way the Iraqi government deals with its people.The protests have been suppressed for months by the government, killing 700 and wounding 20,000. But today’s protests got the green light as Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam movement helped organize and the Badr Organization coordinated security. Sources on the ground indicated that protesters came wearing white funeral-style shrouds saying they were ready to be “martyrs” against the US presence. Sadr had called for this “million person” march on January 14. Sadr said on December 30 he was willing to work with pro-Iranian militias in Iraq to remove the US after US airstrikes hit Kataib Hezbollah targets. The US struck Kataib Hezbollah after a rocket attack by the pro-Iranian militia killed a US contractor on December 27. The US has accused Iranian proxies in Iraq of killing protesters and carrying out at least 12 attacks against US bases. In addition, rockets have target the Green Zone and US embassy area in Baghdad in recent weeks. On Thursday night a group of PMU near Al-Qaim said they were hit by another airstrike.Iraq’s president Barham Salih met US President Donald Trump in Davos on Tuesday. His meeting  was slammed  by Iraq’s pro-Iranian groups and also by Iran. He was called a traitor. He has urged the US not to use Iraq for a proxy war with Iran. In Iraq on Friday he appeared to support the anti-US protests by saying that they were expressing their independent national will.Anti-US slogans warned that US soldiers would come home in body bags if they didn’t leave. Thousands of different types of signs, mostly in English, bashed the US and Trump. Many signs also bashed Israel and Israeli and American flags were placed on the ground for the protesters to walk on. All along Karrada boulevard the protests continued for six kilometers. Karrada is a nice area with a Chaldean Catholic church and ice cream shops. The protests were not violent and it was clear they were organized and had official backing. The presence of anti-Israel slogans is not surprising because of Iran’s influence. However, the pro-Iranian paramilitaries of the PMU, who helped organize and support the protest, made sure to keep their own flags hidden. They wanted the protest to appear as one of Iraqi nationalism rejecting the US presence. The same militias and paramilitaries have accused Israel of air strikes in Iraq over the last year. This likely contributed to their decision to bash Israel. It is common in Iran to have rallies where US and Israeli flags are put on the street to be walked on. Although, in Iran videos show people avoiding the flags. Iran’s narrative is often to link Israel and the US in its rhetoric of “resistance.” For instance the Houthi rebels in Yemen have an official slogan that is “death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews.” Iran supports the Houthis. In Iraq some of the protesters have also turned their hatred toward Kurds, creating conspiracies that portray the Kurdish region as separatist and pro-US. This is particularly true after the Kurdistan autonomous region had a referendum in September 2017 on independence.

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