Iraqis Demonstrate Against U.S. Troop Presence In Iraq

Jan 24, 2020
Originally published on January 24, 2020 10:24 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to go now to Baghdad where Iraqis loyal to a leading Shiite cleric and to Iran-backed militias turned out to demonstrate against the United States. They were demanding that the U.S. military and U.S. security companies leave Iraq. This protest follows a vote by Parliament there for the United States to withdraw. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. Hi there, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: So you went to this protest, right? What did it feel like? What happened?

ARRAF: Well, it was billed as a million-strong march, and they did not get a million people, but they got at least a couple hundred thousand of them. And they were all there to rally support for driving out American forces. There was singing. There was dancing. There was a lot of flag waving.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST MUSIC)

ARRAF: And then they listened to a speech from a Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr, who actually isn't in Iraq at the moment. He's in Iran. He called for the closure of all U.S. military bases in Iraq, closing the headquarters of American security companies, closing the Iraqi airspace to military and intelligence aircraft. And that list kind of goes on, but the theme there is he wants the United States out, as do all of those protesters. I talked to one protester - a government employee, college graduate - he was carrying a sign that said global terrorism is made in the USA. And here's what he said they wanted.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Need it to leave, the Army of USA, on their - all foreign army in Iraq because the Iraqi government is strong now.

ARRAF: So what didn't happen with this protest, what everyone is - had feared was that they would rush across to the Green Zone and storm the U.S. embassy. That didn't happen at all. It was very orderly. They protested, and they dispersed.

GREENE: Well, I mean, take these voices and this protest coupled with Parliament, you know, demanding that the United States leave, to what extent is this increasing pressure on the United States to get out?

ARRAF: Well, it does add a certain amount of pressure because these protesters are tied to militias and to political blocs that actually have seats in Parliament. And while Parliament is not the determining factor, it does play a role. But here's the thing - the Iraqi prime minister, even though he's a caretaker prime minister, said very clearly that he wanted U.S. forces out after the U.S. drone strike killed the Iranian commander and a top Iraqi official. But he hasn't done anything about it, so there's really a question as to whether he will.

GREENE: Well, I mean, you think about the impact of protests in the country. There were previous protests about corruption. They actually forced the resignation of a prime minister. So, I mean, what - where - you say interim prime minister - where is Iraq right now in terms of a new government?

ARRAF: Well, I guess the short answer is it's kind of in a mess. In fact, the most revered Shia cleric here, the grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, who is very influential, said in his Friday message this morning that they had to get cracking and come up with a new government. But there isn't a candidate that anyone can agree to for prime minister. And that is one of the things that's holding this back. Demonstrators want a new system, new politicians, and they're being offered the same old guys, they say.

GREENE: That's NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from Baghdad where there was a protest demanding American forces leave the country today. Jane, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEVER GIRL'S "SLEEPYHEAD SYMPHONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.