BAGHDAD: Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of United States troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.
Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the US killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad this month. Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university.
The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State (IS) and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.
The country has seen protests since October against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians.
Sadr opposes all foreign interference in Iraq, but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran. He supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.
Parliament urged the government to eject US troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS militants.
Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting ISIL remnants and a buffer against the dominance of Iran.
“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected” US-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.