Thousands of Iraqis rallied at two central Baghdad intersections on Friday after a prominent cleric called for a “million-strong” protest against the American military presence, following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia chief, Reuters informs.
The initial march appeared not to gather further steam, however, largely dissipating after several hours. Some protesters headed to join separate anti-government demonstrators at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and others boarded buses to go home.
The march called by Moqtada al-Sadr aimed to press for a pullout of U.S. troops. Many anti-government protesters feared it could overshadow their separate, months-long demonstrations that have challenged Iran-backed Shi’ite groups’ grip on power, Reuters noted.
Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, later called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a new government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.
Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament, Reuters informed.
Some lawmakers and protesters say the new, anti-U.S. element to public unrest distracts from the aim of toppling the corrupt political elite and could fuel more violence.
Throngs of marchers started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square in central Baghdad and near around the city’s main university, Reuters witnesses said. Marchers avoided Tahrir square, a symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.
“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 as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.
Men and women marched waving the red, white and black national colors, and chanted slogans against the United States, which leads a military coalition against the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.