Behind the headlines about the Middle East crisis, there’s a casualty you may have missed. Most already know that, in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad’s airport, Iran launched missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

But here’s the hidden news: This crisis is threatening to undermine the peaceful protest movement that for months has been challenging the Iraqi political system and establishment — putting the protesters in a very difficult situation, diverting attention from their demands and, worse, making it easier for the Iraqi establishment and its attendant militias to mistreat them.

Since before the crisis, I have been in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, researching the protests that started in October and moving through the tents of different protest groups. Here’s what they are saying about the uprising and the recent escalation.

What does the uprising want?

Before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the Iraqi state was already weakened by a decade of U.N. sanctions. However, the U.S. occupation provoked a collapse of the state; the political system the United States then imposed on Iraq plunged the country into a sectarian war. The U.S. administration put in place a system based on ethnic, sectarian and religious quotas and brought in Iraqi exiles to run the country. This exacerbated communal, social and political tensions, and fragmented the country along communal lines, which contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

The October uprising has attempted to reverse the resulting political dynamics. The protesters proclaim Iraq’s unity and sovereignty, and are calling for a functioning, transparent and democratically elected government with strong state institutions that deliver services equally to all citizens. Through their main slogan, “We want a homeland,” protesters are denouncing political corruption, sectarianism and nepotism, as well as the rule of militias and armed groups tied to the political elite that have been attacking journalists, civil society activists and protesters.

Protesters come from throughout the population: young working-class and poor Iraqis, the educated middle class, university students, workers unions and civil society activists. They’ve argued that Iraq has been weakened by a flawed political process and sectarian, corrupt and repressive governments. Together they’ve demanded radical changes, including the organization of new elections following the appointment of a new prime minister, a new electoral law and constitution, as well as the prosecution of the political leaders accused of corruption and the killing of unarmed protesters. They demand that Iraq’s rich oil resources be redistributed to benefit the poor and to build electricity, water, health and housing infrastructures, as well as state institutions and services.

Many severely wounded young men are part of the Tahrir Square protests, including a significant proportion of former Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) members who volunteered to combat Islamic State fighters in Mosul in 2014. Having been deeply marked by the war against the Islamic State, they now accuse political leaders of using their sacrifices for their country simply to benefit the elite and its militias.

In response, the Iraqi political establishment has cracked down on the protest movement, working with Iranian-allied groups and militias that shoot with live ammunition and tear gas canisters. Many of the protesters consider the two people killed in Baghdad — Soleimani and Muhandis — to be partly responsible for the bloody repression that has reportedly killed more than 500 unarmed Iraqi protesters and wounded some 20,000 others.

Many members of the Iraqi establishment and their militias are tied to Iran. As a result, slogans against Iranian influence in the country have been prominent. But protesters have been vocal in rejecting not just Iranian but also U.S. influence, asserting Iraq’s sovereignty.

Spending time under many protesters’ tents, I heard similar demands expressed from individuals with very different backgrounds. They’ve developed a similar discourse defending “civic-ness,” or madaniyya in Arabic. They have refused the use of Islam by politicians to justify sectarian politics and corruption, and insist that state security forces should be the only ones wielding weapons.

How the U.S. strike threatens the uprising

The Iraqi political elite have often accused protesters of being American agents in Iraq. The U.S. drone strike has further inflamed anti-American sentiment, including the Iraqi parliament’s recent vote to call for the expulsion of all U.S. forces from Iraq.

On Jan. 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented on the U.S. drone strike in a Fox News interview. He said that Iraqi protesters were celebrating the death of Soleimani — and claimed that the protests were not against America. With his comments, he put protesters in direct danger of being attacked by pro-Iran armed groups and militias, bolstering the militias’ claim that they represent the resistance to U.S. presence.

As a result, for now, the protesters’ political demands have been pushed to the side. Some key political constituencies had been leaning toward supporting the demand for madaniyya (civic-ness) and nonviolence, including supporters of the Shiite Islamist political leader Moqtada al-Sadr. But Sadr and some of his supporters are now eager to once again take up arms against the United States. Immediately after the U.S. drone killings, Sadr called on his armed groups, including the Mahdi Army, to assemble and “fight against Americans.” In the past few days, supporters of Soleimani and Muhandis have taken advantage of the crisis to violently attack peaceful protesters in Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriyah, killing two people.

The Tahrir Square protesters are trying to push back. After Soleimani and Muhandis were killed, protesters released a statement: After expressing determination to remain in Tahrir to push forward their demands, the statement denounced the attack on Iraq’s sovereignty and the breach of international laws and reiterated the uprising’s refusal of any external influence, Iranian or American. Protesters now call for a massive protest on Friday that will renew their demands, and emphasize their opposition to having Iraq used as a battleground for a proxy war.

Zahra Ali is assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University at Newark and the author of “Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation.” You can follow her on Twitter at @ZahraSociology.

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