15 June 2021
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Iraq protesters see sinister message in Suleimani banner

Monday, 11 January 2021 00:01
Images of Qassem Sulaimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis are emblazoned across the exterior of Baghdad's Turkish Restaurant building, once the headquarters of Iraq's anti-government protesters. Images of Qassem Sulaimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis are emblazoned across the exterior of Baghdad's Turkish Restaurant building, once the headquarters of Iraq's anti-government protesters.

For many Iraqis who took to the streets of Baghdad to protest against poor governance, corruption and unemployment, a high-rise building overlooking Tahrir Square, known locally as the Turkish Restaurant, was the archetype of a functioning sovereign state.

Draped in Iraqi flags, the building housed youths who provided daily logistical support to the revolutionaries camped in the square, distributing items such as donated blankets, battery packs and cigarettes.

The young revolutionaries even installed an electricity generator during hours-long power cuts, highlighting the many failures of successive Iraqi governments in providing basic services over the past 17 years.

The demonstrators wanted not only to change the sectarian political order that emerged after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion, but also an end to interference from a foreign country that has worked persistently to control the future of Iraq, namely Iran.

But last week the building was covered with images of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, leader of a powerful Iran-affiliated Iraqi militia. It was to commemorate the anniversary of their assassination in a US drone strike.

“The Iranian-sponsored militias wanted to send us a clear message by doing this, which is: 'We are your enemies. We are the enemies of your revolution', Mostafa Abd, 42, an electrician, told The National.

"They don't need to come to Tahrir because they can easily gather outside or inside the Green Zone, in front of the US embassy. But they did so to deliver a message.”

The Turkish Restaurant building, so named because of the restaurant that occupied its top floor in the 1980s, was bombed in two wars and subsequently abandoned. It became a shelter for Iraqi activists who launched scattered protests in October, 2019 that grew into gatherings of tens of thousands in Baghdad and several cities in the south.

Iraq's ruling elites have promised sweeping reforms but insist they cannot happen overnight.

The deaths of Suleimani and Al Muhandis challenged the Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, where the US seeks to reverse the influence of its regional foe, Iran.

There are credible reports from Baghdad that the Iraqi militia umbrella group, the Popular Mobilisation Forces , formed in 2014 when ISIS took over large parts of Iraq, started to split over leadership choices following the death of their two mentors.

Several commanders have reportedly locked horns over who should succeed Al Muhandis. These factions include militias that take their orders from Iran, chiefly Kataib Hezbollah – which was led by Al Muhandis, and the Badr Organisation.

But analysts close to the PMF, which includes influential Iranian-backed militias, played down the reports and ridiculed the popular protests in Baghdad and other cities.

“The revolution of the joker has come to a complete end. It’s dead. They don’t have another option but to take some time to reconsider their positions and thoughts,” political analyst Mohamed Sadiq Al Moussawi wrote in an article circulated by pro-PMF media outlets on the anniversary of Suleimani's killing.

But in the eyes of Somia, a young female protester who spoke to The National, , Suleimani and Iran-sponsored militia leaders had blood on their hands. She squarely blamed them for orchestrating a violent government crackdown that left hundreds of protesters dead and thousands injured.

The Iraqi government said in July last year that nearly 560 protesters and members of the security forces were killed in months of anti-government unrest.

“Suleimani and his ilk tried to tarnish the image of the protesters as a bunch of saboteurs who occupied a building in central Baghdad to indulge in obscene acts, while they were killing us in cold blood,” Somia said.

"Shame on them."

Source: The National

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