Iraqis worry US-Iran tensions are eclipsing their protests

January 14, 2020


In this Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 photo, protesters stage a sit-in at Tahrir Square during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq. Mass protests by young Iraqis against their country's ruling elite helped force the resignation of the prime minister, but with the focus now turning to the conflict between the United States and Iran, demonstrators fear the momentum is being drawn away from their goals. The four-month old protest movement was already struggling amid internal divisions and a fierce security crackdown.

BAGHDAD — Young Iraqis who drove mass protests demanding sweeping political reforms are worried that the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, which is playing out in part on Iraqi soil, is killing their momentum.

Even before the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the 4-month-old protests against government corruption, poor services and rising Iranian influence in state affairs were beset by internal divisions. A violent security crackdown heightened tensions, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries as well as targeted killings of sympathizers.

And in the stormy aftermath of the U.S. drone strike that also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, avoiding another war in Iraq became a top priority for state officials as they scrambled to contain hostilities between Washington and Tehran.

“We are afraid that the uprising is being forgotten and (officials) are focusing on things we don't want, not our main goals,” said Noor, an activist in Baghdad's Tahrir Square who asked to be identified only by her first name, fearing reprisal, like all other protesters interviewed for this story. “On the other hand, we are trying to be calm and keep people on the street to make the point that we are not with the Americans or the Iranians. We are with Iraq.”

There are hopeful signs as Iran and the U.S. appeared to back down — at least in the short term — after Tehran retaliated for Soleimani's killing by firing missiles at two Iraqi bases housing American troops. No one was seriously injured and Iran was unexpectedly forced to shift gears to manage the fallout from its accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner filled with Iranians.

Nevertheless, the issue of U.S. troop withdrawal in response to the attack that killed Soleimani minutes after he landed at Baghdad airport has monopolized Iraqi politics, with caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi openly calling for their ouster.

“Everyone is busy with America and Iran, but we are still facing attacks on the street,” said Zaid, a protester in Baghdad. “Now we've become an easy goal for the militias; they can harm us because no one is focusing on them.”

The rejection of Iranian influence over Iraqi state affairs was a core component of the protest movement and demonstrators fear that as tensions between Tehran and Washington ease, Iranian-backed militias will turn on them for vengeance.

The protests began Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and in the country's predominantly Shiite south. Since then, about 500 people have been killed, most of them shot by security forces who also used tear gas to disperse crowds.

While Friday protests brought out thousands countrywide, the turnout was lower than expected. Adding to their worries, two local journalists known for their coverage of the anti-government protests were found shot dead in a car parked near a Basra police station. And more people were wounded in clashes Saturday between protesters and security forces in Karbala, in southern Iraq, when police fired into the crowd.

“Protesters are certainly more afraid now than they were a few weeks ago but at the same time they want to maintain their ground," said Ruba Ali Hassan, a researcher at York University in Toronto. "They’ve had such great momentum over the past three plus months and there’s great fears this momentum might die down. People are trying to show great support and make sure that the protesters can still move forward but they’re on shaky ground unfortunately.”

A growing concern among protesters is their belief that Iran-backed militias are seizing on some demonstrators' refusal to grieve over Soleimani as an excuse to attack them. In turn, the attacks fuel the differences of opinion over Soleimani, deepening the rifts between the demonstrators and distracting them from their original purpose.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, for instance, protesters refused to let a symbolic funeral procession for the Iranian general enter the square where they were camped. Violence broke out and at least one protester was killed and three wounded when an Iran-backed militia fired on crowds. Demonstrators then burned the headquarters of Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization for multiple militia groups and part of the Iraqi security forces.

“Political parties and militias have attempted to create discord within the demonstration square in the center of Nasiriyah — they took advantage of the rifts between protesters,” said Ali, a protester based in the city. “We have concerns the emotions arising from his death will rob the protests of its true aims."

The events in Nasiriyah have spooked protesters in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the movement, who fear similar attacks, several activists said.

Since Soleimani's death, protest organizers have been trying to refocus attention on their movement, three activists said. With that in mind, they issued a statement last week saying their goals had not changed.

At the top of their list is preventing Abdul-Mahdi, who has headed a caretaker government since his resignation in December, from being renamed prime minister, which many suspect the country's political elites would like.

“All the news is about America and Iran, and the elites are trying to make the people forget about the protests in Iraq, and our goal for change and we don't want that," said the protester, Noor. “We are trying to be calm and study what is going on around us. We are telling everyone, stay with Iraq. This is not our war.”

Iran announces arrests over downing of plane that killed 176

TEHRAN, Iran  — Iran's judiciary said Tuesday arrests have been made for the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed all 176 people on board just after takeoff from Tehran last week.

The announcement came amid an upswell of anger and protests by Iranians in recent days over the downing of the jetliner last Wednesday and apparent attempts by senior officials in Iran to cover-up the cause of the crash.

Iran, which initially dismissed allegations that a missile had brought down the plane, acknowledged only on Saturday — three days after and in the face of mounting evidence — that its Revolutionary Guard had shot down the plane by mistake as the force braced for a possible military confrontation with the United States.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said “extensive investigations have taken place and some individuals are arrested.” His statement on the judiciary's website did not say how many individuals had been detained or name them.

Iran's president on Tuesday also called for a special court to be set up to probe the incident.

"The judiciary should form a special court with a ranking judge and dozens of experts," President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech televised in Iran. “This is not an ordinary case. The entire the world will be watching this court.”

Rouhani called the incident "a painful and unforgivable” mistake and promised that his administration would pursue the case “by all means.”

“The responsibility falls on more than just one person," he said, adding that those found culpable “should be punished.”

“There are others, too, and I want that this issue is expressed honestly,” he said, without elaborating.

Iran shot down the plane as its forces were on alert for possible U.S. retaliation after Iran launched ballistic missiles on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, which was carried out in response to the stunning killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad.

While Rouhani pointed to mistakes and negligence, he also repeated the government's line that the tragedy was ultimately rooted in U.S. aggression.

“It was the U.S. that made for an agitated environment. It was the U.S. that created an unusual situation. It was the U.S. that threatened and took our beloved (Soleimani),” he said.

Rouhani called the government's admission that Iranian forces shot down the plane a “first good step.”

He added that Iranian experts who retrieved the Ukrainian plane's flight recorder, the so-called black box, have sent it to France for analysis.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians — including many Iranians with dual citizenship — and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. There were several children among the passengers, including an infant.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace division, said over the weekend his unit accepts full responsibility for the shootdown. He said when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I was dead.”

The incident raised questions about why Iran did not shut down its international airport or airspace the day it was on alert for U.S. military retaliation.

The shootdown and the lack of transparency around it has reignited anger in Iran at the country’s leadership. Online videos appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests in the streets.

Also Tuesday, Iran's judiciary said that 30 people had been detained in the protests, and that some were released, without elaborating further. An Iranian film director who'd called for protests in Tehran's Azadi, or Freedom, Square is among those released.

Iranian authorities briefly arrested British Ambassador Rob Macaire on Saturday evening. He's said he went to a candlelight vigil to pay his respects for the victims of the Ukrainian plane shootdown and left as soon as the chanting began and it turned into a protest.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador on Sunday to protest what it said was his presence at an illegal protest. Britain, in turn, summoned Iran’s ambassador on Monday “to convey our strong objections” over the weekend arrest.



Associated Press