Khalid Al Mousily / Reuters

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.

The real protesters may have wondered how militiamen and their supporters, many of them armed, were able to enter the Green Zone without any resistance from security forces. Iraq’s riot police and other agencies have been using rounds of live ammunition and tear gas against unarmed demonstrators for more than 70 days. When the peaceful protesters attempted to march toward the Green Zone, unknown snipers deliberately targeted their heads and chests, killing dozens in an instant.

A day after the embassy storming, pro-militia accounts on social media began circulating a list that had allegedly been found on laptops seized from the U.S. embassy. The list of people supposedly collaborating with Americans was poorly designed, and its clumsiness soon became an internet meme, but the overarching message was worrisome. The list included names and personal details of hundreds of anti-government activists, many of whom have since received death threats. The seized-laptops story was an obvious fabrication; the anti-American crowd at the embassy did not get past the reception area. But suggestions that the anti-government protests were being fostered by the U.S. embassy echo accusations previously made by several Iranian and Iraqi officials. Why was the grassroots protest movement dragged into a proxy confrontation between the United States and Iran?

When Iraqis stood up against rampant corruption and poor living conditions, they were met with brutality from Iraq’s security apparatus and Iranian-backed militias. The tone of the protests quickly turned against Iran. Yet the movement—though critical of Tehran’s overreach and role in the bloody crackdown on protesters—was never pro-American. Posters and paintings in the Saadoun Tunnel, which has become known for the artwork protesters have created on its walls, did not portray the United States as Iraq’s savior. The protest slogan “We want a homeland” highlighted the nostalgia for an independent Iraq whose freedom from foreign intervention would be achieved through peaceful strikes and sit-ins that would compel the current government to resign—and not through aggressive “regime change” or foreign intervention. A new Iraqi nationalism was being fostered by a generation that had a new set of grievances. The culprits were no longer Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime but rather an entire post-Saddam political system built on patronage, corruption, and sectarian quotas. For protesters, sectarian identities and religiously motivated imperatives took a back seat to a sense of belonging to Iraq.

The gap not only was incomprehensible to the older ruling class but presented the biggest threat to the status quo. These were young Shiite protesters from Baghdad and the southern provinces cheering against clergy rule; openly criticizing the untouchable ayatollahs, who exert enormous influence over Iraqi politics; and rejecting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps infiltration—all while marching behind massive banners of Imam Hussein, the most revered figure in Shia Islam.

Amid the brutal crackdown against protesters late last year, a fascinating expressive-art scene was birthed. As long-standing social norms such as gender segregation broke down, young women were visible among the rank-and-file protesters, the medics, and the artists—even atop a now-shuttered Turkish restaurant that has become a symbol of the protest movement’s endurance. These changes were the handiwork of Iraqis in every sense. But to the ruling class, they appeared foreign—hence the accusations of Western support. “The American Joker” was one of several derogatory descriptions of the protesters that circulated on social media, often accompanied by still images from Todd Phillips’s recent movie from the Batman series. The government’s deadly response claimed more than 500 lives, but also underscored the resilience of a movement that, during its prime, was the most exciting thing happening in the Middle East.

Alas, it received little sustained attention in the West, and the embassy attack and subsequent hostilities between the United States and Iran are likely to obscure what the Iraqi protesters are trying to achieve.  

Recent events have had complex ramifications. Included in the protest movement are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the controversial Shiite populist critic. The Sadrists are overtly opposed to Iran’s domination of Iraqi politics, but are equally anti-American. The American strikes on PMF fighters targeted the notorious Kataib Hezbollah militia, which has been a main culprit in the wave of assassinations and kidnappings targeting activists. Nonetheless, they caused mostly anger among Sadr’s supporters.

And while the killing of Soleimani—often said to be the second-most-powerful man in Iran—has understandably dominated global headlines, the demise of the deputy chief of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, caused a rift in Tahrir Square. In addition to the Sadrists’ anger at what was perceived as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, many protesters also expressed concern about a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran that would play out in Iraq. There were celebrations after Soleimani’s death in Tahrir Square and provinces of southern Iraq, but there were also mourners. And many Iraqis are worried about where the escalation will lead. In the southern province of Nasiriyah, marchers in a symbolic PMF-organized funeral for Soleimani and Muhandis were denied access to the main protest gathering, which was calling for both Iran and the United States to respect Iraq’s autonomy. The PMF convoy shot live ammunition, killing one protester and injuring others.

Amid all this, the protest movement maintains its core demand of changing the Iraqi political system. In the meantime, chants denouncing both the United States and Iran have become a more common theme—and a method to emphasize the grassroots nature of the protests. Despite the probability of growing repression, the protests continue and are unlikely to die out soon. The real Iraqi protesters risk being sidelined or forgotten amid the recent escalations, but their hopes have not been extinguished.

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