Protesters Mass in Baghdad, Demanding U.S. Leave Iraq

Protesters Mass in Baghdad, Demanding U.S. Leave Iraq

BAGHDAD — Throngs of Iraqis gathered on the streets of the capital, Baghdad, in the early hours of Friday to protest the United States military presence in the country at the behest of populist and armed forces in Iraq with ties to Iran.

The demonstration comes three weeks after the United States launched a drone strike in the city that killed the Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and a prominent member of the Iraqi government, heightening tensions in the region and triggering calls by some for the expulsion of American troops from Iraq.

The protest on Friday was the first designed specifically to denounce the American presence in Iraq since the country’s Parliament approved a measure calling for United States troops to leave. Organizers were hoping for a turnout larger than anything in recent years.

“Participating in this demonstration is like voting in a referendum on the decision of the Iraqi Parliament” to expel American forces, said Sheikh Satar al-Shimmari, from Diyala Province, who was organizing busloads of people to attend.

The Iraq Parliament ratified a proposal made by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi after the killing of General Suleimani, to expel foreign troops from Iraq. The proposal was vague, with no date specified, but its goal was clear.

The protest is concentrated in Baghdad, and people are being brought in from other cities rather than holding smaller simultaneous demonstrations across the country.

Although the event was carefully organized and scripted by Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist anti-American Shiite cleric, and given heft by Iraqi armed groups close to Iran, it reflects a genuine desire to have a government and economy that serves the Iraqi people and not outside interests, many participants said.

Delivering on that may prove to be virtually impossible. But the United States’ recent actions in Iraq drew the wrath of many and distaste even among some Iraqis who support the United States presence.

This demonstration — unlike those in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, which have gone on for months and involve a ragtag group of antigovernment protesters with homemade signs and a range of backgrounds — is heavily orchestrated rather than a spontaneous outpouring of feeling.

Participants were recruited, transported by buses provided by the organizers and given signs, flags and sometimes food. The vast majority of the participants are Shiite Muslims, the main constituency of the cleric Mr. al-Sadr and the armed groups close to Iran.

“The organizers of the demonstration in the southern city of Najaf called the Sadr followers, including me, and told us that there are buses and cars to transport the demonstrators from Najaf to Baghdad on Thursday at 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.,” said Mohammed Ali, 33, a taxi driver.

He said most of his colleagues had also agreed to participate, for many reasons, among them their admiration of Mr. al-Sadr and for personal interests and opportunities.

The buses bringing participants to Baghdad, especially from the south, belong to organizations aligned with the political wings of armed groups close to Iran. Tourism companies headed by people with links either to Mr. al-Sadr or to the militias were also involved, according to several people who were coming from Basra, Najaf and Diyala provinces, among others.

But not everyone, even those in the strongholds of Shiite faith and political power, felt comfortable participating.

“I reject this kind of protest — it is an abuse of the American and foreign presence,” said Mahdi al-Zubaydi of Dujail, a city north of Baghdad.

“It sets a dangerous precedent that could allow Iran and its militias to control the wealth of Iraq and its people,” he said.

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