February 2, 2020
BAGHDAD – Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged his followers Sunday to help security forces clear roads blocked during months of sit-in protests, calling for a return to normal life after the appointment of a new prime minister. .
Sadr, who had alternately sided with anti-government protesters and Iranian-backed political groups they refuse, called on his unarmed supporters known as “blue hats” to work with authorities to ensure schools and businesses can run smoothly again.
Protests broke out immediately in Baghdad and some southern cities on Saturday night after President Barham Salih appointed Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi as Prime Minister in an effort to end political unrest.
On Sunday, thousands gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the capital’s main protest camp, to oppose the move. They drum bands and cheered against Allawi and Sadr, saying “Allawi has been rejected and his parties”.
In a message released on Twitter, Sadr said “I advise the security forces to stop anyone from crossing the roads and the education ministry must punish those who obstruct regular working hours, whether they are students, teachers or others.”
Some of his followers appear to have already helped clear protest areas in Tahrir Square overnight, a Reuters reporter said.
Hours before Allawi’s appointment, blue hats, armed with sticks, attacked a skeleton building in Tahrir Square, known as the Turkish Restaurant, which demonstrators have occupied since October. The building was largely empty on Sunday and blue hats stood guard, occupying its gates and pedestrianizing outside.
“They attacked us by surprise and forced us out of the building shouting that we did nothing good to the country except destroying its economy,” said Rassoul, 20, a protestor who has been living in the Turkish Restaurant since October.
Anti-government protests continued nearby, with demonstrators marching towards Allawi. He was named on Saturday as part of an agreement between Sadr and Iranian-backed political groups that have been bickering since Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s November resignation.
Allawi must form a government within a month and face a vote of confidence in parliament. Iran welcomed its designation Sunday.
Protesters demanding the removal of Iraq’s ruling elite and the creation of better jobs and services have regularly blocked major roads in Baghdad and southern Iraq since demonstrations erupted in October.
US and EU Butterflies
Some of the protesters in Baghdad on Sunday waved the national flag while others wore United Nations and European Union flags. “We urge the UN to support and protect Iraqi protesters,” read some signs.
“Allawi is a member of the political game that has destroyed Iraq, he has to go,” said Malek Jawad, a student and protester.
A dozen young Iraqis stopped in a truck carrying mass speakers and cheered the crowd.
“Moqtada al-Sadr sent opposite messages from the beginning, but in the end he clarified that he is against the protesters,” Jawad added.
Sadr supporters watched protesters from and around the Turkish Restaurant.
Sadr has led anti-government riots in recent years but has been unable to control this round of demonstrations and many protesters oppose him as much as the rest of the political class.
Sadr’s supporters had earlier bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped to protect them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen.
Many of Sadr’s supporters hail from the humidity of eastern Baghdad and share the same complaints as many Iraqis about lack of job opportunities, poor health care and education.
Riots have been the biggest crisis in Iraq for years. It has shattered the nearly two years of calm that prevailed after the defeat of the Sunni extremist Islamic State in 2017. (Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi Editing by Helen Popper and Frances Kerry)