Iraq anti-govt protesters say US-Iran tensions won't derail rallies

Haydar Indhar
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Iraqis protest at Baghdad's Tahrir Square against the political system, demanding the ouster of the ruling elite they consier inept, corrupt and beholden to Iran

Iraqis protest at Baghdad's Tahrir Square against the political system, demanding the ouster of the ruling elite they consier inept, corrupt and beholden to Iran (AFP Photo/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

Diwaniyah (Iraq) (AFP) - For months, their rallying cry has been "We want our country!" Now, Iraq's anti-government demonstrators insist they won't let the dramatic escalation between the United States and Iran steal their thunder.

The youth-dominated demonstrations have rocked Baghdad and Iraq's Shiite-majority south since early October in outrage over government graft, a lack of jobs and the political influence of neighbouring Iran.

They have long been wary of political factions trying to coopt their movement and are now digging in their heels even further, saying their cause will not be derailed by a looming proxy war between Washington and Iran.

Tensions have escalated since a volley of rockets killed an American contractor in Iraq last week.

This prompted the US to respond days later with air strikes that killed more than two dozen pro-Iran fighters of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi military network.

On Tuesday, pro-Tehran demonstrators attempted to storm the US embassy in Baghdad, just across the river Tigris from the main anti-regime protest camp in Tahrir Square.

"Some sides are trying to drag the protests in other directions," said Alaa Sattar, a demonstrator in Tahrir.

"But the position of the protests in Tahrir has been very clear since October 1: Iraq should not be an arena for score-settling or US-Iranian conflicts," he told AFP.

Demonstrators would stay in the streets, Sattar pledged, until early parliamentary elections produce a government "loyal only to Iraq".

Baghdad has close political and military ties to both Tehran and Washington, but those two powers have been at loggerheads since the US withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018.

Iraq has feared that a proxy war between its two allies could play out on its soil, destabilising a country only just getting back on its feet after years of unrest and a devastating fight against the Islamic State group.

- 'No horse in this race' -

Following IS's defeat in 2017, Iraqis hoped to see their economy recover, services improve and to have more jobs for youth.

But with little improvement two years on, many have taken to the streets, pointing the finger at an entrenched elite they say is corrupt, inept and beholden to Iran.

When the protests were met with violence, demonstrators accused pro-Tehran factions in the Hashed of trying to crush their movement and intimidate activists.

The Hashed, meanwhile, has cast the rallies as a plot by the US and other powers to bring "chaos" to Iraq.

This tug-of-war over Iraq should add more fuel to the fire of the protests, said Husaam al-Kaabi, a demonstrator in Iraq's shrine city of Najaf.

"What protesters want is a change in the political situation, which regional and international factions rule right now," he told AFP.

"This is the main reason we went out into the streets -- so that the Iraqi government is the decision-maker," Kaabi added.

He suspected outside powers of trying to "exploit" the anti-government protests for their own political gains, adding slyly, "We know what they are trying to do."

In Diwaniyah, another protest hotspot, 57-year-old Ali Mahdi said the demonstrators would not veer away from their central demands.

"Protesters can see what's happening in this proxy war between Iran and the US on Iraqi soil. Iraq does not have a horse in this race," said Mahdi.

- 'Failed marriage' -

Protesters worry the new tensions could distract political figures away from addressing their movement's demands or, worse, bring violence to protest camps.

Around 460 people have died since the rallies began and several thousand activists have been detained by security forces, but demonstrators have remained camped out in streets and squares.

Protesters are bracing themselves for even tougher days ahead.

"The biggest challenge facing demonstrators now across the country is holding onto the stance we took when we came out into the streets, and not getting pulled into a proxy war on behalf of America or Iran on Iraqi soil," said Ali Tah, a demonstrator in the port city of Basra.

"This is an attempt to end the protests in Iraq," he said.

Tah told AFP that regional rivalries had brought instability to his homeland, so the movement should double down on its demands to build an independent Iraq.

"What is this failure of an Iraqi government if not the child of the marriage of US and Iranian interests since 2003?" he told AFP.

"That's why we're insisting on our demands, and are staying in our protest camps until they are met."