From Iran, Shiite Cleric Tries To Crush Iraq's Protest Movement

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 17, 2020 9:38 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Iraq, anti-government protests have been going since October. Protesters are demanding a new kind of government free of corruption and Iranian influence. And they've paid a heavy price with hundreds killed. Recently, they've come under even more pressure almost crushing the protest movement. Here's NPR's Jane Arraf from Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The song is the same - Iraq's national anthem - but the protesters marching around Baghdad's Tahrir Square over the weekend are different. Instead of the usual cross-section of Iraqi families, these are almost all men, some of them carrying photos of Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr. The protest is a display of power by Sadr, a cleric whose militia fought U.S. forces after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He's since become an influential political figure, and now, from Iran, he has essentially crushed the secular protest movement in Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: On the roof of the concrete building that was the protest headquarters, Sadr officials have taken over the loudspeaker. On the ground, his followers now control access to the high-rise building. Some are busy painting over some of the protest murals on the walls. Nataq al Gharawi, one of the Sadr media people, says the protests had taken a wrong turn, so Muqtada Sadr ordered his forces to clean them up.

NATAQ AL GHARAWI: (Through interpreter) They came and organized the situation by controlling the gangs, the mafias and any other violent acts here. And all of Baghdad is grateful.

ARRAF: The enforcers are known as the blue hats, in imitation of U.N. peacekeepers. But they're the latest incarnation of forces directed by Sadr, now in Iran, and largely through tweets. The protests have been the biggest challenge to Iranian influence here since 2003. Sadr's support allowed the demonstrations to flourish after October. But under apparent Iranian pressure, he abruptly withdrew that support, leading to a violent security crackdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

ARRAF: Near Tahrir Square over the past few weeks, we've seen protests and medical tents that had been burned by masked men, met a protester who was stabbed in the head and talked to the friends of those arrested once they left the safety of the square. Apart from the Sadrists, there are militias kidnapping protesters and security forces acting outside the law.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: When we go back to Tahrir Square to see a protester we met in January, his friend Ahmed tells us he's been arrested.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) They charged him with terrorism. We tried to help, but we can't go to the police station; they will arrest us, too.

ARRAF: We're using protesters' first names because of fears of retaliation. These protests are being portrayed by government, political and militia leaders as fueled by the U.S. In that view, foreign journalists are accused of being U.S. agents. A protester arrested has no lawyer. Ahmed tells us not to ask the police about him.

AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "If you ask about him, they'll say the American embassy is supporting him," he says. I ask one of the protesters, Ali, an unemployed college graduate, what he thinks of the future of the protest movement.

ALI: It's lost, actually. But no one with us. We are alone. We don't have weapon. We don't need the weapon, anyway. We have only the flag. And on the other side, he has everything. He have the money. He have the militia. He have the weapon.

ARRAF: On streets leading to Tahrir Square, protesters confronting Iraqi security forces are still being killed or wounded almost every day. On Friday, a 24-year-old named Mohammad Harbi was shot dead, the latest of about 600 young Iraqis to be killed in the protests. Hyder (ph), who is with an Iraqi human rights organization, says he carried a young man who was badly wounded after he fell in the street. He was believed to be Harbi.

HYDER: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "We picked him up and took him to a hospital, but he died on the way," he says. The next morning, you can still see blood on the sidewalk on the busy street.

There's a guy with a little stall here with cheap Chinese watches and rings and prayer beads. And you can still see traces of some of the blood among the cigarette butts and crumpled paper cups.

Harbi was from a poor family. He dropped out of ninth grade to work. He sold used clothing. And he could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMMAD HARBI: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: This was a video he posted on YouTube, singing about his homeland bleeding. It's become, sadly, a common Iraqi story - a poor kid with talent, but no education and no prospects, killed almost before he has a chance to live. It's what the protesters, beaten down and under attack as they are, say they will keep struggling to change.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.