A short distance from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, Reem al-Obeid sat and watched as, next to the tent that has been her home for some four months, a group of young men fashioned makeshift shields from discarded oil drums.
Some drilled holes into the walls of the barrels, cut vertically down the middle, in order to attach a handle for better maneuverability. Others painted satirical slogans directed against the security forces, whose excessive use of force has seen hundreds of Reem’s fellow protesters killed since a massive popular uprising began last October.
A few kilometers away, thousands had gathered at a parallel march called by prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr calling for the expulsion of American troops from Iraq. For Reem, it was a distraction from the real goals of the uprising.
“The march today had a political purpose, we don’t have any relationship with it,” said the young protester, her black hair and red sweater mirroring the colors of the Iraqi flag wrapped around her shoulders on this cold January morning.
“Our demands are clear, and our position is stronger than theirs,” she said.
Reem and her fellow protesters have for months been demanding an end to foreign interference, an end to widespread government corruption and economic mismanagement, and an improved electoral law.
However, since a US airstrike in Baghdad killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on January 3, a huge spike in tensions between the US, Iran, and their local allies has threatened to draw attention away from the popular anti-government uprising.
Friday’s march saw Iraqis in their thousands congregate from around the country, trampling US flags on the ground and shouting, “No, no America.”
The administration of US President Donald Trump has so far said it will not pull its 500-plus troops out of Iraq, although during a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Trump simply said, “We’ll make a determination soon.”
Fresh from the march, one attendee said it had been against any foreign interference. “None of us want anyone to come in and interfere with Iraqi concerns, whether Iran or America or Turkey,” said Walid, a teacher with a grey beard and an Iraqi flag stuck into his camouflage baseball cap.
For protesters in Tahrir, however, the morning march was too closely tied to America’s regional foe, Iran, which has been for some years increasing its influence in Iraq. Sadr himself visited Shia groups in Iran earlier this month to discuss the withdrawal of US forces, while the event was backed by pro-Iran factions such as the Popular Mobilization Units, a group of militia backed to varying degrees by Tehran.
Rejecting foreign influence
Supervising the shield makers was Abu Mustafa, a 49-year-old man with a kindly expression. His primary concern was to help the young men around him to protect themselves. Over 600 protesters have been killed since the uprising began, with 12 killings reported this week alone, according to an Amnesty International report.
As the shield makers worked on Friday, six of their fellow protestors were killed nearby and 54 others wounded, according to medical sources
These rudimentary shields, he said, were designed to protect against the military-grade smoke and tear-gas grenades that Iraqi security forces have been shooting directly at protesters, to deadly effect.
“We want all those with a hand in Iraq’s affairs to leave, whether it’s America or Iran,” said Abu Mustafa. “We reject all of them, it’s not just about the Americans leaving. They should all leave.”