Baghdad: Over the past weekend, the anti-government protests in Iraq reached a critical juncture, with the Shiite political elite uniting to put down this rebellion.
The leaderless protest movement, its ranks made up mainly of Shiite youths, now finds itself confronting a solid block of organized political opposition.
The turning point came when the volatile Shiite cleric-politician Moqtada Al-Sadr withdrew his support for the protesters, paving the way for a bloody crackdown by security forces.
Since they began in early October, Al-Sadr had been trying to co-opt the protests by feigning solidarity with their anti-corruption message: his supporters joined the demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and other Iraqi cities.
This served his interests in the internecine competition within the Shiite political elite, where his main rival is the Iran-backed Hadi al-Amiri.
Al-Sadr and Amiri have been locked in a contest to name Iraq’s next prime minister since the resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The pro-Iranian faction, targeted for special derision by the protesters, had hoped that the killing of Qassem Suleimani and other key figures in a U.S. drone strike would turn national attention away from Tahrir Square.
But the protests continued, demonstrating that Iraqi youth were not about to forget their grievances against their government in favor of a campaign focused on driving U.S. forces out of the country.
Al-Sadr, perhaps alarmed that his rivals were stealing his anti-American thunder, called on his followers to come out last Friday in their “millions” against the U.S. military presence.
This was also calculated to show up the Tahrir Square protesters, who had planned their own demonstration that day.
The crowds that came out for Al-Sadr were impressive, and they were enthusiastic in chanting anti-American slogans and hanging effigies of President Donald Trump.
But on Saturday, the squares were again filled by protesters calling for the ouster of the entire political elite.
Al-Sadr was alarmed to discover that he was not exempted from the list of leading “tails,” the protesters’ epithet for all corrupt politicians.
Al-Sadr then made common cause with Amiri and ordered his followers to leave Tahrir Square and other protest venues.
Some reports suggest that, in return, the pro-Iranian faction will let him pick the next prime minister. Whatever Al-Sadr’s motives, his withdrawal was a signal for the government to unleash hell.
This is not the first time the protesters have endured such attacks.
Security forces and militias have been responsible for the deaths of at least 500 demonstrators in recent months.
The killings were often targeted and tactical, with snipers picking off protest leaders while others tried to violently disrupt their logistical support network for food, water and other supplies.
But the crackdown on Saturday turned up the dial several notches, attacking protesters and destroying their tents.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, several protesters were killed.
If the Shiite elite now remain united and break the back of the protests, they can preserve the self-serving status quo in which they carve up government ministries amongst themselves, to plunder as they please.
But if the protests persevere despite the crackdown, the political parties may eventually be compelled to make some of the demanded changes.
Al-Sadr’s volte-face on the protests may have united the Shiite political class, but it may prove to have set Iraq on a more dangerous course.