Iraqis are worried that the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, which is playing out in part on Iraqi soil, is killing their momentum with the mass protests demanding sweeping political reforms in the country, The Associated Press informs.
Even before the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian General 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, AP noted.
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, AP points out.
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.
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 in October last year, 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.