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Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks in Najaf, Iraq, April 30, 2016. File photo: Haidar Hamdani / AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s anti-government protesters on Saturday accused Muqtada al-Sadr of “betrayal” a day after the firebrand Shiite cleric withdrew his support for the movement which has occupied Baghdad’s Tahrir Square since October.
On Friday morning, tens of thousands of Sadr supporters and members of Iraq’s pro-Iran parties and militias marched in Baghdad, keeping away from the long-established protest camps, to demand the expulsion of US forces.
Sadr called for the “million-strong” march in response to the US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad Airport on January 3.
Later on Friday, Sadr told his supporters to leave Tahrir Square and other areas occupied by anti-government protesters and formally withdrew his support for the movement.
Early on Saturday morning, Iraqi security forces launched a violent crackdown, ejecting protesters from their camps, burning their tents, and retaking several strategic bridges.
Hussam, 26, who has been protesting in Tahrir Square since late October, told Rudaw that Sadr had simply used the anti-government protests to further his own and Iran’s political interests.
“Sadr is busy working for Iranian interests to be achieved in Iraq by expelling US troops. He has no intention of saving the protests in Iraq if they are a threat to Iran,” Hussam said.
“Sadr left one day after his so-called million person demonstration against the US and that shows that he used the protests for his interests and the interests of Iran,” he added.
Sadr’s march attracted far fewer than the “million” protesters he had hoped to mobilize.
Shortly after his march dispersed on Friday afternoon, Sadr released a statement confirming he was withdrawing his support for the anti-government protests, which have been ongoing since October 25.
Young Iraqis took to the streets of the nation’s southern and central cities on October 1 to protest the lack of basic services, rampant corruption, and high unemployment.
Following a short pause for the Shiite religious observance of Arbaeen, the protests resumed on October 25 with fresh demands for the overthrow of the post-2003 political establishment.
More than 600 people have been killed and around 18,000 injured in clashes between protesters, security forces, and pro-Iran militias according to Amnesty International.
Luay, 31, has been protesting in Karbala since October 26. He traveled to Baghdad on Friday to participate in Sadr’s march – a decision he now regrets.
“I regret that I went all the way to Baghdad to participate in Sadr’s demonstration against the US troops, as he clearly used us for his own interests,” Luay told Rudaw English on Saturday.
“Sadr betrayed everyone and now all he does is serve Iranian interests in Iraq,” he added.
Now Luay fears the anti-government protests “will be finished in a bloody way”.
He is surprised by Sadr’s apparent shift from Iraqi nationalist to Iran-backer.
“It is weird to see Sadr is pro-Iran now, while he was the man who invented the “Iran out, out” slogans back in 2018, in [former prime minister Haider al-] Abadi’s days,” Luay said, referring to similar mass protests in the summer of that year.
Following weeks of relative calm, violence again resumed in Baghdad and other southern cities where security forces used live ammunition to disperse protesters.
At least 10 died in clashes last week, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, and more than a dozen in recent days. At least three protesters were killed on Saturday alone, according to AFP.
In a tweet, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative to Iraq, called on Iraqi authorities to serve and protect the people and to continue implementing reforms.
“Unaccountability and indecisiveness are unworthy of Iraqi hopes, courageously expressed for four months now. While death and injury tolls continue to rise, steps taken so far will remain hollow if not completed. The people must be served and protected, not violently oppressed,” Hennis-Plasschaert tweeted Saturday.