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Firebrand Iraq Shia cleric rallies thousands in Baghdad demonstrations

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wave national flags and chant slogans during a demonstration at al-Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq on 24 March 2017 [Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu]
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wave national flags and chant slogans during a demonstration at al-Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq on 24 March 2017 [Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu]

Central Baghdad ground to a halt today as thousands of Shia demonstrators took to the streets and the capital’s central Tahrir Square to demonstrate against corruption and calling for reforms, responding to a rallying cry from a firebrand Shia cleric to move against the government.

Iraqi security forces undertook extensive security measures, including sealing off roads, footpaths and bridges leading to the protest site, as well as establishing a wider cordon of roadblocks in the Iraqi capital.

Moqtada Al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who has an on-again off-again relationship with Iraq’s post-Ba’athist political process, attended the rally and addressed the crowd. He said that he did not fear threats or even death, and called upon his supporters and followers to “continue with peaceful protests, even if they succeed in assassinating me.”

It was not immediately clear who Al-Sadr was referring to when referring to his own possible assassination, but he has a fierce political rivalry with other Shia parties also loyal to Iran that has led to intrasectarian violence, such as the ruling Dawa Party and especially Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki.

The cleric exhorted the protesters to “tirelessly continue the revolution for peaceful reform to defeat corruption”, and that he would not accept the protests to turn to violence because “we do not want to be a reason behind Iraq being returned to square one.”

Al-Sadr said:

Politicians will try and with all their might to continue the wars [in Iraq]. Some of them will not be satisfied with liberating Mosul, but will drag you all here and there to [die for] foreign schemes. Be careful, preserve the nation and do not fail it.

 Only army should be in Mosul

 Al-Sadr also argued that only Iraq’s military should seize and hold territory currently occupied by Daesh militants in an apparent sign that his political Shia rivals might use their influence within militia-controlled units such as the Shia-dominated and Iraq-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

“It is necessary to support the Iraqi army and security forces to complete their victories in the usurped areas,” Al-Sadr told thousands of supporters at the rally in Baghdad.

“They should be the only ones that hold ground after liberating it – no others, whether the occupier, foreign forces or others,” he said.

The ongoing US and Iran-backed offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul, Daesh’s last major stronghold in Iraq, involves a force of 100,000 Iraqi troops, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia jihadists.

The PMF and other radical Shia paramilitary groups, which include rivals of Al-Sadr’s own militia, have played a key role in encircling the extremist group in areas around predominantly-Sunni Mosul, and have perpetrated atrocities against the Sunni civilian.

There was no immediate reaction from Kurdish officials and other Shia jihadist leaders.

Some Sunni officials fear the Shia groups will aim to hold territory in the region as the battle against Daesh winds down, committing further atrocities and raising sectarian tensions.

Al-Sadr’s fears, however, are more political, analysts say – he is concerned about rival Shia militias gaining strength by taking ground in the north.

Al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Islam, or Peace Brigades, are only deployed in and around the northern city of Samarra where a Shia shrine is located. His militia was rebranded from the Mahdi Army, a hyper-sectarian force responsible for death squads that killed thousands of Sunnis around the country.

Baghdad-based political analyst Ahmed Younis said Al-Sadr’s speech was a clear message to Shia rivals:

It’s quite a clear message for other Shia armed groups not to take on the role of government forces and control lands under the pretext of fighting Daesh. Moqtada is trying to draw a line in the sand for his rivals.

 Al-Sadr, whose opinion holds sway over tens of thousands of Shia, including fighters who battled US troops in 2006-7, also threatened to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, accusing Iraq’s Election Commission of bias towards some parties.

He is calling for a new commission and a review of the current election law, saying it allows influential parties to maintain their grip on power.

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