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Updated: 2nd February 2020 02:23 World·Video

Anti-U.S. protest in Baghdad falls short of million-strong turnout called for by Shia cleric

Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite a cleric's call for a "million strong" turnout.  

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Tens of thousands call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, while others protest Iraqi government

Iraqi Shia cleric leads push after U.S. drone strike kills top Iranian general. 0:30

Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite a cleric's call for a "million strong" turnout.  

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month.  

His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.  

However two protesters were killed and 25 wounded later in a separate protest. Three French nationals and one Iraqi, working for charity SOS Chretiens d'Orient, also went missing in Baghdad, the NGO said.  

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad's main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq's ruling elite.  

"We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government," said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr's followers.  

"We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn't take attention from theirs," he added.  

Followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gathered on Friday in Baghdad to demand that American troops leave the country. (Associated Press)

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.  

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.  

Recent alliance with Iran

Washington's killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.  

It has temporarily united rival Shia groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.  

An Iranian holds a picture of late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S.-ordered airstrike at Baghdad airport in Iraq. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.  

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this article was authored by The Associated Press, saying “Thousands of demonstrators call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq…”. It has been updated with information from Reuters, saying “Tens of thousands call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq…”.

    Jan 31, 2020 2:06 PM ET

With files from CBC News

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