Friday, January 24, 2020

Anti-U.S. Protests in Baghdad: Interim Summary

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace 

Key Takeaway: Iran’s proxy militia network and Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr coordinated a “million-strong” anti-U.S. march in Baghdad on January 24. The march remained peaceful despite fears of clashes between supporters of the march and pre-existing protests.[1] Sadr and Iran’s proxies deliberately chose a location for their march away from the separate, popular anti-government protests which have persisted since October 2019. American policymakers should not perceive the January 24 march as representative of all Iraqis or as a political mandate that warrants abandoning U.S. security commitments to Iraq. The relative success of the anti-U.S. march is unlikely to significantly alter the character or core objectives of Iraq’s pre-existing protest movement, which include a unified and sovereign Iraq free from sectarian divides, corrupt elites, and foreign interference from all actors, including Iran and the United States.

Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Iran’s Iraqi proxy network convened an estimated 250,000 anti-U.S. demonstrators in Baghdad on January 24.[2] This march is not a reflection of the popular, persistent protest in Iraq, which has been much larger in scale and geographic reach. The march was instead a deliberate, contrived show of political force directed at the United States.
  • Either Sadr or the proxy militias organized mass transit to carry their supporters from across Iraq’s Shi’a-majority southern provinces into Baghdad. March organizers also provided food and Iraqi flags to participants.[3] The proportion of Sadrist marchers to proxy militia members or grassroots supporters of the march’s agenda remains unclear from open source reporting and analyses. It is also unclear whether Sadrists, militias, or some combination of the two coordinated the march logistics. A spokesperson for Sadr presented prepared remarks to the crowd through loudspeakers.[4]
  • Organizers of the march provided sophisticated signage targeting a U.S. and international, as well as an Iraqi, audience. That signage included direct, English-language appeals to the American people and images of U.S. figures. Some marchers carried cardboard cutouts of U.S. President Donald Trump and of American soldiers with rope nooses around their necks. Marchers held signs in both English and Arabic with messages such as, “You arrived vertically but will leave horizontally,” “no doubt no doubt, U.S. gonna be out,” and “the Dignity, the Independence, & the Destiny of Iraq Depends on Expelling American Troops.”[5]
  • Iran’s proxies and their supporters were disciplined and did not, in large numbers, fly PMF flags or carry pro-Iran propaganda. Marchers instead broadly followed Sadr’s earlier appeals to carry only Iraqi flags and to not display their affiliation with any militia, religion, or political bloc.[6] The curated nationalist imagery of this march stands in stark contrast to the December 31 march carried out by flag-waving and overtly identifiable militiamen, which culminated in the storming of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.[7]
The U.S. must not conflate contrived expressions of anti-U.S. sentiment by Sadr and Iran’s proxies with the more neutral and sovereignty-focused nationalism of the pre-existing protest movement, which continues and is unlikely to alter its core objectives. Iraq’s pre-existing popular protest movement continued to demonstrate in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and across Southern Iraq. The relative success of the anti-U.S. march is unlikely to significantly alter the character or core objectives of this preexisting movement, which include a unified and sovereign Iraq free from sectarian divides, corrupt elites, and foreign interference from all actors, including Iran and the United States. Many of these protesters perceive Iran’s proxy militia network as another manifestation of corruption and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs and may take issue with Sadrists or Iranian proxies trying to infringe upon their movement.[8] Iran and its proxies will continue to view that movement, which Sadr has sometimes supported, as an existential threat.

Sadr and the Iranian proxy network may now cooperate to take additional political measures to add pressure on U.S. forces to withdraw, but face hurdles in doing so. Sadr and Iran’s proxy militias represent the two largest political blocs, or parties, in Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR). The political victory of the successful anti-U.S. protest could stimulate renewed cooperation between the political blocs in the CoR aligned with Sadr and those aligned with Iran’s proxies. A new pan-Shi’a coalition in the CoR could enable a breakthrough in choosing a new prime minister. Iran’s objective is likely to ensure that a new prime minister is willing to revoke the executive agreement that permits coalition forces to operate in Iraq. The initial potential for a new pan-Shi’a political coalition was signaled by the January 5 CoR session in which a Sadr-Iranian proxy coalition came together, met quorum, and passed a resolution requesting the expulsion of foreign troops from Iraq without the participation of non-Shi’a political blocs.[9] However, it is far from clear whether Moqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian proxy network can sustain their political cooperation.

[1] Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace, “Warning Intelligence Update: Iran Increases Pressure on U.S. Forces in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, January 23, 2020,
[2] Alissa J. Rubin and Falih Hassan, “Protesters Mass in Baghdad, Demanding U.S. Leave Iraq,” New York Times, January 24, 2020,
[3] New York Times, January 24, 2020.
[4] Ayman Henna, “Iraqis mass to urge US troop ouster, rival rallies turn deadly,” AFP, January 24, 2020,
[5] John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi, “'No, No America': Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops,” Reuters, January 24, 2020,; [“Scenes from the anti-American demonstrations,”] Sumaria, January 24, 2020, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/332479/%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%AF-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B6%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%84%D9%88%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A.
[6] al-Iraqi, Saleh M., Facebook, January 15, 2020,
[7] Tim Lister, “A proxy war between the US and Iran just moved a step closer,” CNN, December 31, 2019,
[8] [Translation] “A Number of Sadrist Protesters' Tents Were Raised in Tahrir Square and Other Provinces.” al-Ghad Press, January 24, 2020.
[9] Katherine Lawlor, “Iraq's Parliament Votes to End U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, January 5, 2020,