BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of supporters of an Iraqi populist Shiite cleric held sit-ins around Iraq on Friday night, saying their country should not be a battlefield between the United States and Iran.
The sit-ins come days after a rocket slammed into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, landing less than a mile from the sprawling U.S. Embassy. No injuries were reported and no group claimed responsibility.
Last week, the U.S. ordered the evacuation of nonessential diplomatic staff from Iraq amid unspecified threats from Iran. The White House has also sent warships and bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter the alleged Iranian threats.
In Baghdad, more than 3,000 people gathered Friday night in central Tahrir Square chanting "no to war" and "yes to peace." In the southern city of Basra, Iraq's third largest, more than 2,000 men and women gathered for a similar sit-in.
The demonstrators are supporters of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who recently said that any political party that would drag Iraq into a U.S.-Iran war "would be the enemy of the Iraqi people."
"The aim of these demonstrations is to distance Iraq from any war," said cleric Ibrahim al-Jabiri, a member of al-Sadr's movement, as supporters stood by waving Iraqi flags and white roses signaling peace.
Al-Jabiri added that the Iraqi government should be "strong and courageous to prevent such a war as Iraqis could be the victims of such a war."
There have been concerns recently that Iraq could once again get caught in the middle. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.
For the Shiite-majority Iraq to be a theater for proxy wars is not new. It lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, led by powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and has long been the setting in which the Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy played out.
After America's 2003 invasion of Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, American troops and Iranian-backed militiamen fought pitched battles around the country, and scores of U.S. troops were killed or wounded by sophisticated Iranian-made weapons.
"Iraqi should stay away from this war. There are foreign parties that want to get Iraq involved in this war," said protester Salam al-Darraji.