Demonstrators blocked main trade routes in southern Iraq for a second day in a sign that the four month old protests are set to continue despite the threat of reprisals from Iraqi militias galvanised by the US killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Protesters, who oppose foreign influence in Iraq and are calling for a government independent of Washington and Tehran, blocked roads in Baghdad and the south of the country on Monday and Tuesday. As activists filled roads with wood, concrete blocks and burning tyres they said they were blocking normal trade but allowing vehicles with essential goods such as medicine to pass.
Alaa al-Rakabi, a medical doctor and activist in Basra, said the protesters had cut the road from Baghdad to Iraq’s only seaport to disrupt the businesses that they believe are sustaining Iraq’s political leaders.
“When the port is blocked the economical aspect of corrupted parties will be suspended,” said Dr Rakabi in a video. “The big traders will start imposing pressure on the government saying: ‘I have billions of dollars worth of trade, give the protesters their demands’.”
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets since October demanding an overhaul of the political system after 17 years of US-installed democracy has failed to build a viable state.
Those protests paused this month after Soleimani was assassinated in a US air strike as he left Baghdad airport, threatening to further destabilise the volatile region.
The killing unified many of Iraq’s powerful, Iran-backed militia groups to challenge the US presence in Iraq and raised fears that the armed groups would have a free hand to crack down on protesters if demonstrations restarted. Politicians linked to the different Shia militias dominate Iraq’s parliament and, alongside the government’s security forces, were responsible for the repression of protests last year that left some 500 people dead and tens of thousands wounded.
The new roadblocks show that despite the heightened risk of retaliation the protest movement has not been cowed. If anything, analysts said, the protesters appear more organised than they were before.
“[The protesters] don’t have leaders but they have coordinators,” said Hiwa Osman, an Iraqi analyst. “They agree on steps to escalate . . . but when it comes to political demands and when it comes to shaping political vision, they tend to vary in different parts of the country”.
After four months, the protest movement has developed organising committees often linked together by older activist networks, said Mushriq al-Furaiji, 37, an Iraqi activist who has been involved in protests since 2011.
“The current plan is to increase co-ordination and keep [up] the pressure because their ways are killing, attempting to buy some activists, so we need to come closer,” Mr Furaiji said.
Many of these coordinators have sought to keep a low profile as the risks to activists have increased. Some 60 protesters have been kidnapped since the protests began and there have been 33 assassination attempts leading to 14 murders, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
This latest escalation by the protesters was a response to the failure of political elites to appoint a new prime minister to replace the caretaker premier, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who stepped down in December in the face of widespread popular opposition.
Demonstrations started again in Baghdad on Friday and then spread across Shia-majority southern Iraq after the protesters’ deadline for the appointment of a replacement passed. In the violence that followed on Monday and Tuesday, clashes with security forces left ten protesters dead and 159 people injured, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said.
With anti-American Shia militia leaders promising to mobilise their own supporters in “million-strong marches” on Friday, more violence is anticipated.
“There are huge numbers of infiltrators and saboteurs coming from the ruling parties,” said Hassan, a 20-year old protester who said he was threatened at the end of last year as he conducted a survey of demonstrations in the capital’s Tahrir Square. “But every time they try to sabotage the demonstration, we are becoming more determined,” he said.
The protesters have widely rejected the interference of both Iran and the US in Iraq’s politics. But Hassan said the threat of US sanctions if Iraq forces American troops to withdraw means he wants the US to stay. “I prefer American forces to stay on, rather us being under siege,” he said. “Trump’s sanctions are harsh and will take us back to the 1990s.”
Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar in Istanbul