Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi protesters marched through the streets of Baghdad on Friday. In response to Shia Leader, Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for the mobilization of a “million-strong” march, Iraqis stormed the streets of Baghdad demanding U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq. A representative of al-Sadr read out a statement calling for the closure of Iraqi airspace to US aircraft, the nullification of Iraq’s security agreement with the U.S. and for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraqi borders. Iraqi security forces responded the next day by raiding a protest sight in Tahrir Square. Security forces stormed surrounding highways and bridges, firing live bullets and tear gas, killing one protester and wounding dozens. The situation escalated on Sunday as three rockets where fired at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, severely injuring at least one embassy employee. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the U.S. has blamed Iran-backed militia groups for previous attacks.
Iraqis have made statements clarifying their intentions in protesting. According to interviews conducted by CNN, protesters are calling for the retraction of foreign intervention and influence in Iraq. A protester interviewed by CNN correspondents stated on Friday, “Our country is exposed to foreign interference from East and West,” and “we don’t want any country to decide the fate of Iraq. We want to see Iraq with full sovereignty.” Iraqis also commented on the increasing influence of Iran, stating, “We don’t want Iran in Iraq either. We respect them as a neighbor but they should not have a say in Iraq and no one should interfere in our internal affairs. No to America, and no to Iran. Iraq is for Iraqis.” The Sadr-led march differs from Iraqi protests in the past; it doesn’t denounce the current Iraqi government, but reinforces the Shiite political agenda. According to a report from Reuters, Anti-government protestors are torn with the most recent march, claiming, “This march is different from what the street wants, it supports the current political system in the country, it doesn’t oppose it.” Surveys conducted by Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative report that many of the protestors are young and unemployed. The younger demographic of protesters’ demands focusses on ending ethnosectarian politics and in denouncing foreign intervention rather than advocating for incremental policy reforms which has been the primary motivator for mass protests in the past.
After U.S. drone strikes killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd, the focus of the protests shifted from opposing Iranian intervention in Iraq to opposing both U.S. and Iranian influence. Violence has erupted from Iraqi security forces and Iranian backed militants with little substantial action taken from the international community. On January 31st, Human Rights Watch urged Iraqi officials the unlawful use of force by security forces, but the Iraqi officials have taken small steps in subsiding state induced violence. Iraq has been a breeding ground of violence and instability since the start of the 21st century, and the international community seems desensitized to the current situation.
With protests and violence continuing to escalate, Iraqi officials are under increasing pressure to negotiate a withdrawal plan with U.S. officials. The U.S. has no current intention of withdrawing from Iraq. According to the Washington Post, Iraqi officials requested a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, in which the U.S. State Department responded, “any discussion with Baghdad would center on whatever force size the Trump administration determines is sufficient and that ‘America is a force for good in the Middle East.’” On Monday, U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter, “the government of #Iraq must take immediate steps to protect our diplomatic facilities as required by international law.” As the U.S. remains unresponsive and uncooperative to Iraq’s demands, tensions between the Iraqi people and the United States along with the protests and resulting violence will likely continue until a compromise can be made between both governments. The U.S. government has no intentions of withdrawing personnel and if Iranian militant groups continue attacking American facilities, the U.S. will almost certainly maintain or increase its military presence.
With inadequate and easily influenced governing institutions, it’s unlikely that the Iraqi government will resolve the protests and violence independently. The prospect of war between the U.S. and Iran is more probable than it’s been in decades and in the event of a bilateral conflict, the theater of war will likely be between Iraqi borders. The country has yet to recover from the decade long war that’s devastated the nation’s infrastructure, economy, population and community; The damage from another large-scale conflict in Iraq will be irreversible and solidify its vulnerability as a proxy for other nations’ affairs. It’s the role of the United States and the rest of the international community to digress the escalating violence and to allow Iraq to stabilize and handle its domestic affairs without foreign influence.