Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has been the center of ongoing protests since October, but on New Year’s Eve it looked like any other public celebration venue—with music, dancing, food and drinks, and fireworks at midnight as the assembled crowd cheered. But that was not the event that received attention around the world.
Several hours earlier, across the Tigris River, which separates Tahrir Square from Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, a different gathering took place. Hundreds of militiamen and their supporters stormed the gates of the U.S. embassy, penetrated its reception area, and set it ablaze. Waving banners of some of the state-sanctioned, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), this angry crowd chanted “Death to America” and graffitied the walls with the slogan “Soleimani is our leader”—a reference to the powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. The attack on the embassy was a retaliation for the killing of 25 PMF fighters by an American air strike that occurred days earlier, after the United States concluded that Kataib Hezbollah, a militia backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was responsible for the killing of an American contractor at a military base in Kirkuk.
The tit-for-tat escalation between the United States and Iran’s proxies quickly brought Iraq back into the spotlight, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The grassroots protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are seeking economic and political reforms—and are speaking out at significant risk to their own safety. Yet the months of protests that have left more than 500 unarmed demonstrators dead, thousands wounded, and dozens subjected to kidnappings, torture, and arbitrary arrests have barely registered in American media. To add insult to injury, many publications referred to the mob at the U.S. embassy as “protesters” when they were in fact part of, or at best sympathizers with, the same militias responsible for untold carnage during a broader crackdown against grassroots protesters. The U.S.-centric coverage of the embassy attack obscured most of the details, reducing the subsequent escalation—in which Donald Trump ordered an air strike that killed Soleimani at Baghdad’s airport—to a “blunder” by the U.S. president.