Supporters of the Shia cleric respond to his appeal for a “million strong” march. Many people dressed in white, ready to die for the country. Anti-government protests continue in Tahrir square. In his Friday’s sermon, al-Sistani appeals again to politicians to form a new government as soon as possible.
Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Thousands of people took to the streets in Baghdad to protest against the presence of US troops in Iraq after firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a “million strong” march.
The protest comes as regional tensions have been rising since the start of the year, following the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force, which led to an Iranian missile attack against US military bases in Iraq.
“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health ministry worker from the southern city of Samawa, who arrived by bus at night and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district of Baghdad controlled by the cleric’s followers.
“We support the protests in Tahrir [Square] as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.
Throngs of marchers started gathering this morning at al-Hurriya Square in central Baghdad and near around the city’s main university.
Marchers avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’ ruling elites, which have been going on since October. Sadr’s march might have clashed with the protests in the square, at a time of deep ethno-confessional divisions and tensions.
During the rally, men and women waved the national colours: red, white and black. Some wore white robes, symbolically indicating their willingness to die for their country. Others sat looking out over the square from half-finished buildings, holding signs that said “No, no, America, no, no, Israel, no, no, colonialists”.
Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam brigades and Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces provided security to the marchers. These groups are part of a number of Iran-backed Shia militias.
Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Sadr emerged as a major clerical and political figure opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.
In recent years he has moved closer to Iran, which has boosted its influence with the country’s political leaders.
The march, which began in the morning, ended after a few hours. Some participants then headed to Tahrir Square to join the anti-government protests.
Today, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest Shia cleric, spoke publicly during his weekly Friday sermon.
In his address, he urged political groups to form a new government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact necessary reforms.
Iraqis, he noted, “should have the right to peaceful protests,” whilst “Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected.”