Young men have been dying every week. Now, fears of a final confrontation are spiking.
Youthful Iraqi protesters have spent four months in the streets, demanding an end to a political system that has thwarted their dreams for the future and urging that Iraq be freed from Iranian and American meddling. Already, the demonstrators have forced the prime minister’s resignation and have won moderate electoral reform. But those gains have been steeped in blood. Security forces have killed more than 500 protesters. The movement’s ranks had been bolstered by supporters of influential Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In a fateful U-turn, however, he turned his back on the movement last weekend, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation.
For months leading up to last weekend, Haider Sabah had beamed Iraq’s protests to the world, filming the uprising around Tahrir Square and broadcasting a live stream at night. Like many activists, he’s received threats from Iran-backed militias allied with the government. “The revolution made me realize that I love Iraq more than I expected,” he says. “If the situation remains the same, then my children will have a tragic life.”
Just across Sadr City district, Haitham Mizyad was preparing for a different protest. This one was called by Sadr, who was urging the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq. The cleric was busing in supporters from across the country. Iraqi militias were backing Sadr’s “million-strong” march, prompting accusations from anti-government activists that Sadr was preparing to turn against them. Mizyad says he had initially seen Americans as liberators during the 2003 war, but then “they acted like occupiers.”
Sadr’s march on Friday Jan. 24 attracts supporters from across Iraq. Seen from above, the streets around Baghdad’s Hurriyah Square are a sea of black, white and red, with protesters clutching Iraqi flags and wearing shrouds around their shoulders. Voices projected by loudspeakers denounce U.S. troops as occupiers. Posters depict President Trump hanging from a noose. Militia supporters keep a low profile, easing fears of violence.
But the crowd in Tahrir Square was uneasy because of the rival protest. Fearing violence, some of the anti-government protesters had stayed home that morning. Others wondered what Sadr would do next. On the nearby Mohammed al-Qassim highway, a young crowd burned tires. Shortly after Washington Post reporters left the scene, security forces opened fire. And then came the announcement: Sadr had withdrawn his support for the protesters in Tahrir Square.
Sadr’s abrupt withdrawal of support has an immediate impact. Once Sadr’s loyalists leave the protest camps across Baghdad and southern Iraq, riot police begin their assault early on Saturday, Jan. 25 setting fire to protest tents. Near Tahrir Square, security forces also fire into the crowds, and nine people are killed. Fear ripples through the square.
But then something perhaps surprising happens: In defiance, many more people stream into the square to join the protesters, sometimes for the first time. They vow to keep the cause alive.
As those at the anti-government protest camp wake up on Sunday, the mood is lighter, though the resolve of many has hardened. Sabah is still in his tent, broadcasting the events. In a warren of tents on the edge of Tahrir Square, activists say that the stakes were higher than ever. “I came here saying that I’d be willing to die for my country, and that’s truer than ever now,” says Yasser, a young medical student. “We’ve seen what they do to people who ask for change now. There’s no going back.”
The future of the months-long protest movement is uncertain. Since Sunday, at least 13 people more people have been killed, reportedly by security forces, and scores more have been wounded. Iraq’s political elites have rallied, closing ranks in the face of an anti-establishment protest movement that initially took them by surprise. Crowds are holding out in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. But an increasing proportion of the young demonstrators are now scared to leave their camps, fearing they could be abducted or arrested.
They fear a final crackdown.