Protesters nervous Iraq could play host to US-Iran proxy war

Demonstrators in Iraq's month's long anti-government movement say the death of Qassem Suleimani has left the fearful of what is to come

Iraqi mourners wave flags as the coffins of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and eight others towards the Imam Ali Shrine in the shrine city of Najaf in central Iraq during a funeral procession on January 4, 2020. Thousands of Iraqis chanted "Death to America" today as they mourned the deaths of  al-Muhandis and Soleimani, who were killed in a US drone attack that sparked fears of a regional proxy war between Washington and Tehran. / AFP / Haidar HAMDANI
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In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of months-long protests, the killing of Iran's elite forces chief Qassem Suleimani has left many nervous that their country could be about to become the battleground for a war over US and Iranian interests.

Over 500 Iraqi protesters have died in the brutal crackdown that has accompanied their calls to end corruption and Iranian influence over the country's government. A backlash many say was orchestrated by Suleimani himself, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, yet the kidnappings and violence have continued.

Abbas, a protest organiser who did not want to give his full name or age, said that he is worried that their fight for an independent Iraq could disappear into a larger battle that could take place on Iraq’s soil.

“This was a huge shock to us, no one thought this could happen," he said. "Now there is fear in the square, and a lot of people have left."

When the news of Soleimani’s assassination first reached Tahrir Square, many began to celebrate. But as it's possible ramifications sunk in, joy turned to anxiety.

“We are worried that a war will happen on our valuable ground,” said Ali Tamimi, a civil activist and protest organiser who has been helping with logistics in Tahrir Square since October 25.

Mr Tamimi believes that an Iranian response to the killing will not happen on Iranian territory, and is worried that a power struggle between Iran and the US will ultimately cost Iraqi lives.

By Friday afternoon, Mr Tamimi said, protesters were holding up signs asking the US not to drag Iraq into the fight.

“I am positive that Iran will not fight nationally — they have influence in countries like Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq,” said Mr Tamimi, “They will not fight in their own territory."

While US officials have focused on the initial singing and dancing among Iraqi protesters following the news of Suleimani’s death, they have failed to talk about the bigger picture.

“I think [Suleimani] is a war criminal,” Mr Tamimi said. “That does not mean I accept US interference — I am against all foreign interference, be it from the US or Iran."

Every protester The National spoke to stressed that they do not support outside countries meddling in Iraq.

“We don’t want Iraq to be a place for countries like the US and Iran to fight … We don’t want Iraq, for the second or third time, to be the sight for another country’s crisis. If you want a US-Iran war, leave our Iraq," said young activist Nour.

Protesters also said they were worried that Iranian-backed militias could attempt to use the tensions to delegitimise the protests.

In Nasariya, a southern city where some of the worst of the violence has taken place, a group of militia supporters reportedly attempted to carry a symbolic coffin representing Suleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, who was also killed in US drone strikes, through the centre of protests.

When the protesters refused to allow them to pass, the militias opened fire.

“They will try to use these things [to discredit us]. But they will not succeed. We support people here, we bring them food, clothing, and things that help everyone,” said Abbas, who still has faith in the protests.

“There has not been a movement in Iraq like this revolution," he said.

"You see women, children, and young people coming out to demonstrate despite the cold. We will always continue.”