Soleimani killing adds dangerous new dimension to Iraq unrest


Baghdad (Reuters) – Iranian-backed Shi’ite factions have exhorted Iraqis to turn out for a “million-strong” march on Friday aimed at whipping up anti-American sentiment as the United States’ struggle with Iran plays out on the streets of Baghdad.

Those behind the rally have two goals in mind – to pressure Washington to pull its troops out of Iraq, and to eclipse the mass anti-government protests that have challenged their grip on power.

It is likely to end up at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, the seat of U.S. power in Iraq and the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound. It could turn nasty again.

The U.S. killing of Iranian military mastermind General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad this month has given renewed impetus to Iran’s allies in Iraq.

But it has also raised the spectre of more civil strife in a country torn by years of sectarian conflict, lawmakers, protesters and analysts say.

“The assassination threw the political classes, and Iran-leaning actors in particular, a lifeline,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

“It created a counter-cause and a counter-crisis that pushed the protests out of the news cycle – albeit briefly.”

The call for Friday’s “million-strong” march came from cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran.

Protesters who have separately camped out for months in Baghdad and southern cities demonstrating against the corrupt, Iran-allied government, fear the worst.

“This million-man march is different from what the street wants. It supports the current political system in the country, it doesn’t oppose it,” said Abdul Rahman al-Ghazali, a protester at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a centre of the uprising.

Ghazali and other demonstrators said their movement risked being sidelined by the strength in numbers – and weapons – of those marching against the United States.

“I am not going to take part in the upcoming protests against America,” said student Hussein Ali.

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