Iraqi populist cleric backs down from anti-US action

Iraqi populist cleric backs down from anti-US action
Iraqi populist cleric backs down from anti-US action

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr backed down on Thursday from his call for a million-man march against the presence of US troops in Iraq.

It is a significant political reversal after criticism among his Shiite constituency that the march would serve Iran and undermine the three-month uprising he supports.

Mr Sadr had announced the planned march after a visit to Iran, saying it was aimed at peacefully “condemning American presence and its violations in Iraq”.

In a statement on Thursday Mr Sadr toned down his language on the anti-US aspect of the march.

He said the demonstration, whose date he did not specify, would be against “corruption and occupation,” without specifying the US.

Mr Sadr has been the kingmaker in Iraqi politics for the past 15 years.

He took centre stage, describing himself as the leader of resistance, after a US drone strike on January 3 killed Qassem Suleimani, a top Iranian enforcer whose Quds Force oversaw pro-Iranian militia across the region.

Suleimani’s Iraqi militia ally, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, was also killed in the US operation.

Addressing the protest movement, Mr Sadr said in a statement, “go on against corruption we are with you. There can be no homeland under occupation, no sovereignty with corruption and no freedom with militancy.”

The reference to militancy seemed directed at his other Shiite militia peers, some of whom he had said were militants intent on undermining Iraq by attacking US forces in revenge for Suleimani.

Mr Sadr also rejected charges that the demonstrators were “serving the outside” an apparent rebuke to Iran and many of its clients in Iraq who had termed the protest movement a US and Israeli plot.

Many of the demonstrators are impoverished Shiites in Baghdad and the south, the bedrock of support for Mr Sadr. Nationalist clerics opposed to Iran’s influence in the Shiite learning centre of Najaf had also allied with Mr Al Sadr.

One of them, Sheikh Ali Al Uboudi, had called on Mr Sadr to cancel the march, calling it “out of context”.

He noted that Mr Sadr called for the march after pro-Iranian militia overran a protest hub in the centre of the southern city of Nasiriya, a core constituency of Mr Al Sadr.

Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, had also signalled his displeasure with the planned march, through a twitter group affiliated with him.

The group, the Holly Abbaside See, said a statement by Sistani's ten days ago drawing attention to groups he did not name as attempting to sabotage the protest movement was "a warning".

Mr Sistani, who is in his late 80s, is due to undergo surgery for a fractured thigh bone on Thursday, underlining his fragility, as well as the potential perils to moderation in his eventual absence.

Updated: January 16, 2020 02:13 PM

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