From Badr to Sadr: Iraqi protests January 27 to February 7 – By KAREEM BOTANE and MECRA STAFF
The period of review from January 27 to February 7 may be a crucial turning point in the protests that have taken place since October. These have led to more than 550 deaths and up to 20,000 injured. A group of European countries condemned the “excessive use of force” in Iraq against the demonstrators on January 27. On February 6 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also condemned the violence against protesters. “We are outraged by the violence perpetrated in the city of Najaf on February 5 that led to the killing and wounding of peaceful demonstrators. Since October of last year, peaceful demonstrators have taken to the streets to urge government reform.” His statement indicated the toll had risen to more than 600 dead.
The violence in Iraq shifted over the ten-day period from clashed between riot police accompanied by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the protesters, to clashes between Sadr’s followers and the protesters. Video caught men in plain clothes shooting protesters. Protesters confronted the government over the appointment of a new Prime Minister on January 30. Most of the violence took place at iconic large squares in major cities where protesters have camped. Near Khilani square in Baghdad the riot police said they were not the ones killing protesters.
The next day Dhi Qar police set up checkpoints around Haboubi square in Nasiriyah to protect the protesters against armed attacks. This illustrates a mixed response from local police and riot control forces and militias. Iraq’s multi-layered security forces have meant that there is no coordinated assault on protesters, but that those who shoot protesters can act with impunity. For instance, no one shot at the Badr and Sadr-backed protests against the US on January 24. Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam and Hadi al-Amiri’s Badr Organization have played a key role in this crucial time, working together to oppose the US, support a new prime minister and oppose the protesters.
Baghdad politics is still overshadowed by the US killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani. Signs at the airport commemorate the men. The US has released a report on the IRGC’s role in Iraq. Iran is backing Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq al-Allawi. US CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie visited Iraq on February 5 to discuss the security of US forces amid tensions with Iran and pro-Iranian militias, and to discuss the anti-ISIS campaign.
As this unfolded Sadr sent his supporters in blue hats to push protesters from key areas. In some cases they used firearms and in others mixed messages from Sadr’s office on February 2 appeared to seek to calm tensions in some areas and stoke them in others, such as Najaf. Despite challenges the protesters held firm, holding a major rally on Al-Jumhuriyah bridge near Tahrir Square on the night of February 2. Over the next days clashes continued, including armed attacks and beatings of protesters by men without uniforms. These attacks appear coordinated by also coordinated to not reveal the identities of the forces involved. Most protesters blame them on Iranian-backed groups such as Saraya Khorasani, or on Sadr. They also blame other groups such as Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
Sadr has prevaricated about whether he ordered his blue hats of Saraya al-Salam to attack protesters. His official statements are contradictory. Through a review of the context and also on-the-ground interviews in Baghdad, Najaf, Wasit Governorate and Kut, we have gained a picture of this crucial time and allegations of abuses by Sadr and Badr supporters and other groups linked to the Hashd al-Sha’abi and PMU. We also shed light on protesters being detained, the role of Iran and tribal groups, and continued instability. The protesters see themselves as revolutionaries today. They say they want freedom from a corrupt oligarchy and ossifying leadership that has ruled Iraq for a decade and a half. While Iran and its supporters seek to portray the US presence as the main problem in Iraq, the protesters also see Iran and militias as threatening their freedom.
We conducted several interviews on Badr’s role in suppressing the protests. White cars of the Interior Ministry were spotted intervening against the protests on Tuesday, January 28. The cars had printed on them: Interior Ministry, Police command of the Baghdad Governorate on them.
Footage shows them calling on people to leave and end the protests in Jadriya. “The people of Jadriya want to make a living. Don’t stop their work. This is a destruction that you protesters are doing, harming their shops. They don’t trust you. Keep your demonstrations peaceful. The place for demonstrations is in Tahrir square, not here. We are the sons of the same country. Brothers, students, demonstrators, we want to protect you. Don’t let those ‘interveners’ mislead you.”
However the reality on the ground in the evening is different than the messages put out by police and officials that appear to respect peaceful demonstrations. Instead protesters say they are being “hunted” with weapons used against them, including live fire and tear gas cannisters aimed at their heads. This has been a feature of the protests since October, the use of combinations of snipers and tear gas.
The situation here in Tahrir is tense, says one of the demonstrations. The “Saraya al-Salam has come back to the demonstrations but now they are armed and with their blue hats. They have occupied the Turkish restaurant in Tahrir square.” The takeover of the towering building known as the “Turkish restaurant” was a major blow to the protesters. It had been an iconic gathering place of the protest movement in Baghdad, with people camped out in it and ascending the stairs to look over the city and discuss the hopes and dreams of what might come next. The occupation of the Turkish restaurant by Sadr’s forces is a major development, activists say, and they are concerned Sadr’s men have their own focus and it is unclear what their next move will be.
At the same time as protesters felt the setback of losing the Turkish restaurant, they were non-plussed about the new Prime Minister-designate that President Barham Salih had tapped. People opposed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, the Prime Minister designate, they said.
Many on the ground oppose Allawi. The question is what will happen on Sunday, February 2, they said. There are questions over whether Allawi should be accepted or opposed.
February 1 began with a large rally by Saraya al-Salam’s blue hatted volunteers at the Turkish restaurant. There was instability and many hundreds of people milling around. Images at night showed people shouting in defiance against Allawi.
The footage tonight shows that Sadr’s followers continue to control the Turkish restaurant and the entire area in Tahrir square. This is an attempt to prevent people from protesting against Allawi. This took place at night on Saturday after Allawi’s selection was announced. However the intervention of Sadr’s units in Tahrir has appeared to reduce the attacks by various other militias, such as Khorasani, Kataib Hezbollah and Badr, according to participants.
On February 2 the tense situation continued. Demonstrators rejected the appointment of Allawi. In the photos a man named Abu-Dura, a criminal who has been in the militias, he was involved in clashes on February 1. Abu Dura, who was formerly part of Kataib Hezbollah has now been seen with Saraya al-Salam. “Men from Kataib and Badr are now working closely with Saraya al-Salam.”
Sunday, February 2
Sadr, having maneuvered to work more closely with Badr and to support Allawi, seeks to threaten the protesters that they must cease their protests. He issues a threat to “every free person who must understand.” He referenced “Iraq of the Prophets and Messengers, saints and righteous.” The message asserted that the faithful would not leave Iraq, just as they had faced martyrdom in the past, apparently a reference to the Saddam era.
At this time the Iranian newspaper Sohbe-No (صبح نو) printed a frontpage showing that Allawi had the approval of Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri. “The outcome of unity in Iraq.” It argued that “After months of unrest in Iraq and the thwarting of Western and Arab reactionary conspiracies in the internal affairs of Iraq, after millions of anti-American demonstrators erupted [on January 24], Iraq’s Hadi Ameri’s coalition leader of Fatah Alliance and Muqtada al-Sadr agreed. The Iraqi top leaders are going to elect [Allaw] and Baghdad is once again going experience political stability, order and security.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Iran supported the appointment of Allawi and wished him success. “Iran is prepared – in such a sensitive situation faced by the friendly and brotherly government and nation of Iraq – to provide all of its facilities for that country’s government and nation to help overcome the problems and achieve Iraq’s high goals,” Iran’s government said. “In line with its continued support for the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity and strengthening of principles of democracy in Iraq as well as for the Iraqi government and nation’s legitimate demand for the withdrawal of American forces from that country, the Islamic Republic of Iran welcomes the appointment of Mr. Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the new prime minister of that country [Iraq].”
Clashes erupted on Sunday, February 2 as Sadr’s blue hatted supporters began to try to clear protesters from Tahrir in Baghdad and from Najaf. They took over the Turkish restaurant in Baghdad, a center of protest and clashed with students. They also tried to open the Bridge of the Republic (Jumhuriya) in Baghdad.
Various political parties in Iraq released statements. The Kurdish parties accepted Allawi’s appointment and said they wanted the agreements regarding the 2020 budget to remain in place and that the Kurdish region would have two ministries in the next government. Al-Hikma said it would not participate in the next government while al Nasr said the same. The State of Law party said it had not decided. Sunni parties said they had a list of conditions to participate.
A witness to protester detainees speaks out, February 3
MECRA spoke with a man who discussed the fate of protesters who had been detained. “I am publishing this according to the witnesses who were interviewed by the detainees and who were later released about the torture and sectarian investigations they are exposed to in prisons under the supervision of a government and a judge who is also involved in this.”
He says that all those detained were subjected to “various types of beatings, insults, and bad and treacherous sectarian insults during their transfer from the place of detention to the detention center, as if those detaining them had caught a dangerous terrorist.” They also indicated that they had been subjected to an investigation (with their eyes blindfolded) by people wearing a uniform of the Ministry of Defense and one of them said that “I was subjected to 11 investigations…The investigation was sectarian, with interrogators saying they “could smell a Sunni.”
One of the detainees said: “There were about 46 young demonstrators in the detention with me, all of them were from different sects and different governorates. One of them was blindfolded with an Iraqi flag…I asked him and he said he was detained for raising an Iraqi flag in the front of the security forces.”
One of the detainees said to me: “We went out for the sake of getting rid of sectarianism and sectarian terms and to show that we are all Iraqis.” He said in prison they were subjected to torture and sexual violent. “There were many acts of torture, using sticks of the kind you play billiards with, for instance. They beat us until the sticks broke. They used water hoses, iron bars while hanging people by the hands or pulling out fingernails or electrocuting people in water. It is beyond shocking that I cannot speak about it.
An officer we spoke to rejected some of the accusations but did not that they didn’t have charges to place against many of the demonstrators. “We bring them and during the investigation we are looking for something [to charge them with] and connect them with violations.” For instance one demonstrator said that he worked with coal that blackened his feet but that he was charged with being involved in sabotage and “burning operations” by authorities for taking part in the protests. The evidence was his blackened feet. One was charged because he had an iPhone and was accused of receiving “external support.” He was accused of being part of a foreign organization, spreading strife and asked to reveal other members of his network.
The goal of security forces and militias confronting the demonstrators has been to break their resolve through various means. Reports of abductions and assassinations are common. Leading voices have been systematically targeted. The activists say the National Security Agency of Iraq, the Hashd al-Sha’abi security officers, Interior Ministry and other groups from the government have been involved in investigating the protesters.
One former detainee, in tears, says that he met a detainee who had distributed excess blankets to the rioter when it became cold at night. “During eight days of detention we were fed only five times. “When I was detained the detainees around me did not say ‘good morning’ but ‘live the revolution.’ They had great hope despite being in prison. They believed the revolution could bring freedom.”
Why were they there? Of 16 people in one instance, many came due to poverty. Their families were so poor they were left in intention. An eyewitness says that he say fifteen people charged with sabotage despite lack of evidence. The legal affairs department of the Baghdad municipality charged them and sued them for vandalism. Their personal belongings were taken by the city, they said.
Follow-up to accusations of torture in detention, February 4, 2020
According to witnesses who were interviewed, they said they had been released after torture and “sectarian investigations.” They accuse the Government of Iraq and judicial system of being complicity and created their own hashtag “#Protesters_under_torture.”We spoke to demonstrators and security officers. The demonstrators say they are psychologically exhausted.
Tribes release a statement, February 5
Amid a continuing crackdown and clashes between members of Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam and the protesters, a group of tribes from Dhi Qar Governorate issued a warning directed at Muqtada al-Sadr. “We cooperate in righteousness and piety,” the warning said. “We do not cooperate with sin and transgression. We ask Muqtada al-Sadr not to be a party to the bloodshed of our sons in the governorate and not engage our people in fighting and civil strife for your personal and political interests. We call on you to withdraw your followers and not incite between people and the city and instead leave security in the hands of local government forces and responsible parties. We hope to respect the dignity of Iraq and stay away from personal interests.” The note implies that Sadr will be responsible for bloodshed if he continues on his path. Twelve tribes signed the document.
The same day rumors began to circulate of a potential cabinet of non-partisan figures who would be amenable to the public and could sit with Allawi. The document circulating showing potential appointments asserted that that Abdul Ghani Ajeel al-Asadi, a special forces commander from Maysan, could be defense minister. Another retired general, Tawfiq al-Yasiri could be Minister of Interior. Rahim al-Ogaili, a former anti-corruption chief who was chairman of Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity, could be Minister of Justice. For the Finance Ministry Sinam al-Shabibi might be tapped. A former governor of the Central Bank of Iraq from 2003-2012, he would have the skills for it. Some have suggested Dr. Alaa Al-Rikabi, a social activist for Minister of Health. A former deputy transport minister, Atta Nabil Hussein, could be Minister of Transport. William Warda, an Iraqi journalist from the minority Assyrian community, could be heading to the Ministry of Displacement and Migration.
Najaf clashes, February 6
The morning in Najaf, which had seen days of clashes since Sadr sought to intervene against protests, saw masked gunmen controlling areas of the city leading to the central Sadrayn square where activists had camped out. Police have been standing around as masked men beat protesters. From Al-Ghadeer street these masked perpetrators have been searching anyone entering, going through their pockets, making them take off their belts and checking their hands.
The atmosphere is filled with a feeling of foreboding about what may come next. Anyone who takes videos may find themselves hassled later by these masked men who have come to stop the protests. These are Sadrists say the activists. “We know their grusesome and vile work.” The square was eventually taken over by Sadr’s supporters and controlled by armed men. The protesters call themselves the “revolutionaries of Najaf.” They say that they will wait until Friday at noon, after prayers, to confront Sadr’s men if they do not leave. They warn of a bloodbath and judging by the clashes on February 6-7 many are wounded and several killed in Najaf.
Clashes in Wasit Governorate and Kut
We travelled south of Baghdad to see other areas where clashes were reported. In Kut and then Wasit Governorate we met activists. Coordinators here are trying to coordinate with other areas of Iraq. We had meetings there related to discussing with activists who is behind the attacks on demonstrations. We discussed the role of Iran, US and others. Met with a member of AAH and a family linked to Badr and KH.
There are other subjects here such as members of Saddam’s regime returning. There are many issues taking place amid the conflict and escalation and it goes beyond the role of militias.
I had an interview with a demonstrator who says that Asaib and Khazali are deeply involved in activities. His father is with Saraya al-Salam. He says he wants to be free from this slavery of all these groups and he wants to be free to work without having to be a member of Saraya al-Salam, for instance. My message to the UN, if they are not saving us, then don’t blame us if we are killed, we are prepared to die for this cause.
We are attempting to follow the leaders and the developments of Sadr followers and demonstrators in Wasit. There is a team here that is working among young people to train them in medical assistance. Since December they began to train first responders for medics. They are educated and work on social media. They helped to assist during recent clashes, including what they said was waves of attacks on the demonstrators.
Key dates and events
January 27; European countries condemn excessive force used on protesters
January 30: Clashes near Khilani square, Baghdad and Haboubi square in Najaf
February 1: Iraq’s President chooses Mohammed Allawi to form new government
February 2: Clashes at Republic Bridge in Baghdad, Sadr statements support Allawi
February 4: Sadr statement seems to urge calm among blue hats
February 5: Clashes in Najaf kill 6, tribes release statement
February 6: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemns attacks on protesters in Najaf.