The April 9 anti-occupation demonstrations by supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr marked the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, which was probably the last time anything went as planned for Washington in its war on Iraq. The massive April 9 protests were another step in the burgeoning crisis of legitimacy for the new pro-US Iraqi government.
Los Angeles Times journalist Edmund Sanders reported that protesters flooded central Baghdad chanting “Death to America!” Sanders reported the crowd was estimated at 300,000. In his “Informed Comment” blog, Middle East scholar Juan Cole wrote that if the protests were even half that size, they “would be the largest popular demonstrations in Iraq since 1958”. when Iraqis overthrew the British-backed Hashemite monarchy.
The protesters converged on Baghdad's Firdos Square at 11am, chanting: “No, no to America! No, no to occupation!” This is in stark contrast with April 2003, when a large statue of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in that square, an image endlessly reproduced in TV news bulletins and the corporate press as a symbol of Iraq's “liberation”.
In July 2004, a Los Angeles Times article revealed that “It was a Marine colonel — not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images — who decided to topple the statue ... And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.”
This time around, it was a thoroughly Iraqi event in Firdos Square, as angry protesters raised their fists in the air shouting anti-US slogans and brandishing banners emblazoned with “Leave our country” and “Go out”.
Other demonstrations of a similar scale have been held since the fall of Baghdad — in January 2004 when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's senior Shia cleric, mobilised Iraqis to demand the US occupation regime hold direct elections. A Baghdad protest called by Sistani's followers attracted around 100,000 and a Basra protest was estimated to be between 100,000- and 300,000-strong.
The difference between the recent protests and the Sistani-backed 2004 mobilisations, however, is that the latter were staged with the intention of pressuring the US to cut a deal that gave Sistani-aligned political factions a share of the power in the “new Iraq”. Those demonstrations were held with the backing of the Shia clerical hierarchy and benefited from Sistani's immense religious prestige.
In contrast, the April 9 protests were an unambiguous rejection of the US-led occupation. They dealt a huge blow to the White House's propaganda campaign, which seeks to portray opposition to the occupation as being restricted to Sunni Iraqis, and as attempting to restore a Baathist dictatorship. This mobilisation, however, was not only organised by the followers of a Shia cleric, but effigies of Hussein were burnt alongside ones of US President George Bush.
In contrast to Sistani's “god-given” authority, the popularity of Sadr stems from the prestige of his father — a cleric assassinated by the Baathist regime — and the work that Sadr’s followers did setting up rudimentary welfare systems during the chaos of the US invasion.
But most of all, it's been Sadr’s public opposition to the US occupation and the willingness of his Mahdi Army take up arms against US troops during the April and August uprisings in 2004 that have built a substantial following for the young cleric. After Sistani, Sadr is Iraq's most popular political figure — more popular than the new Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari, who is the most popular parliamentarian.
The Baghdad demonstrations, according to Sanders' report, were not just aimed at the recently elected Iraqi National Assembly, but also at the US population. He pointed out that “Scores of banners were printed in English. A statement by Sadr, also in English, was read over a loudspeaker.”
This is not the first time Sadr's movement has tried to communicate with the people of the US. On April 6, 2004, when the occupation forces closed down his newspaper, and engaged in a bloody assault on the Sunni city of Fallujah, the cleric issued a statement calling for “the American people to stand beside their brethren, the Iraqi people, who are suffering an injustice by your rulers and the occupying army. Otherwise, Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers.”
As the size of the protest indicates, Sadr's call for the new government to set a deadline for foreign troops' withdrawal is popular with Iraqis. The majority of Iraqis who took part in the election of the Iraqi National Assembly, Iraq's new parliament, on January 30 did so in the belief that it would lead to a speedy end to the occupation.
But as the political factions in the assembly squabble and scrabble for what little power the massive US-led occupation force allows it, the illusions many Iraqis had that the elections would end US control of the country have started to wither.
When the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance predictably blitzed the January 30 National Assembly elections, some commentators were quick to predict doom for the US occupation, believing that a Shia clergy-dominated coalition would quickly press for the occupation's end.
However, far from mobilising Iraqis to drive out the hated occupiers, the UIA and Sistani have signalled that they will collaborate with Washington. An indication of this has been the UIA's willingness to draw Iyad Allawi, the former CIA employee and Baathist assassin installed as the prime minister of Iraq by the US-appointed interim government in 2003, into the new governing coalition. An April 10 BBC Online article reported that, according to his spokesperson, Allawi and his faction had agreed to join the new government “because he believes in making the political and democratic process in Iraq successful”.
The UIA is also trying to co-opt Sadr and his followers, aware of the danger of an alternative leader who opposes accommodation to Washington. However, Sadr appears to have different ideas. An April 13 article in the British Guardian indicates that links between Sadr and the Iraqi National Foundation Congress have strengthened.
The congress is a united front of nationalist, Islamic and left-wing groups that support armed struggle against the occupation. In a January interview, Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi-born novelist and former political prisoner, told the British journal Red Pepper: “My understanding, although it doesn't admit it, is that the congress is the political wing of the armed resistance.”
The Guardian reported that the Sadr and the congress issued a joint statement affirming “the legitimate right of the Iraqi resistance to defend their country and its destiny” but “rejecting terrorism aimed at innocent Iraqis, institutions, public buildings and places of worship”.
The threat of a strong alliance between the armed Sunni resistance and an invigorated Sadr movement is the stuff of nightmares for Washington. If the new Iraqi government fails to present at least a facade of progress towards ending the occupation, armed resistance will increasingly seem to be the only avenue left open to Iraqis.
As Juan Cole, commenting on the Baghdad demonstrations, noted: “To any extent that [the protests] show popular sentiment shifting in Shiite areas ... they would indicate that [Sadr] is winning politically even though the US defeated his militia militarily.”
From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.