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Crisis in Iraq: Troops and Protesters Clash at Green Zone in Baghdad

The gunfire and surge of protesters raised concerns about the thousands of diplomats and international officials in the Green Zone.

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Protest in Baghdad. Image source: VOA

Crisis in Iraq continues. Anti-government protests in Baghdad exploded into violence Friday afternoon as thousands of demonstrators defied heavily armed guards and concrete barriers and charged into the International Zone.

Security forces unloaded heavy machine-gun fire, stun grenades and tear gas as the crowds surged forward. But even as some protesters were forced back, others began to arrive, charging their way toward the fight.

“We will kill Abadi!” some shouted as they ran toward the zone. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has come to symbolize the face of Iraq’s failing government.

Some of the protesters broke the security cordon and ran to Abadi’s offices, determined to find him. He reportedly was not there.

As the gunfire continued, dozens of ambulances with sirens blaring raced across the bridge connecting eastern Baghdad toward the entrance of the International Zone to pick up the wounded. It was not clear whether the gunfire was being directed at the protesters or above their heads, or how many wounded there were.

The protests were the culmination of weeks of mounting anger against government corruption and inefficiency, which peaked this week when a series of bombs and suicide bombers exploded in the largely poor Shi’ite area of Baghdad known as Sadr City.

By dusk, most of the gunfire had ended and smoke was blowing across the skyline of the International Zone, also called the Green Zone. But protesters vowed to return, with their own guns.

Cleric’s followers

Many of the protesters were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric who has emerged as the leader of the Iraq’s struggling poor and has an almost cultlike following among those frustrated with a government and parliament seen as deeply corrupt and ineffective.

“I will do anything Muqtada asks me to do,” said Mahdi, a commander inside al-Sadr’s so called Peace Brigades.

His nephew Rabah, a policeman in Sadr City, agreed. “We are not afraid of anything because we are with Muqtada al-Sadr,” he said.

“If the government does nothing for us, we will do something,” Rabah added just before the protests erupted. “We want the government to fix the situation inside the parliament and inside Iraq.”

Members of parliament have been struggling to even gather a quorum after al-Sadr and his followers shocked Baghdad three weeks ago by entering the International Zone, storming the parliament and chasing out the lawmakers.

The cleric has demanded that Abadi end a political quota system that guarantees political parties ministerial positions and replace the current government with technocrats.

Interim step fails

Abadi attempted an interim measure by replacing six ministers. It was not enough. The parliament and the political parties could not agree, and the resultant squabbling devolved into a fight for power. The issue has been referred to the Iraqi federal court.

Many protesters have lost all trust in the lawmakers and the government.

“The political fighting here is creating huge problems and is the result of political infighting for personal gain, not out of concern for Iraq,” said Nabil Nouraddin, a human rights activist. “Politicians are not protecting their people. They are just out for themselves.”

But al-Sadr’s militiamen are not the only ones in Baghdad’s streets.

The Badr corps, one of the strongest militias in the umbrella group of Shi’ite armed militias known as Hashd al-Shaabi, has rejected al-Sadr’s attempts to force change and has flexed its muscle in response.

Badr corps members now protect their own neighborhoods and reject al-Sadr’s push.

“We need to follow the political process, the laws. Any emergency government or any government other than the current government, in our opinion, would be a disaster,” Hashd al-Shaabi spokesman and former Badr brigade leader Kareem Nouri told VOA.

Poster calling for volunteers to join Al Hussein Athar militia, Baghdad, May 18, 2016. Source: VOA
Poster calling for volunteers to join Al Hussein Athar militia, Baghdad, May 18, 2016. Source: VOA

Nouri also rejected the suggestion from some political corners — including from some Sunnis who feel they have lost all power under the Shi’ite-dominated political and security structure — for an emergency transitional government.

Some Iraq analysts see the political struggles as normal growing pains in a country new to democratic processes. But the presence of armed militias loyal to different leaders has turned that process into a tense and highly volatile situation.

Without the militias, “it would be more peaceful, more political and solved much easier, and everybody would be more ready to make concessions,” said Baghdad businessman Husam Gazalee.

The gunfire and surge of protesters raised concerns about the thousands of diplomats and international officials in the Green Zone.

Colonel Steve Warren, an American military spokesman based in Baghdad, said, “We’re fine. Same as last time. They don’t appear interested in us.”

Warren, whose words were relayed to Pentagon reporters from the Baghdad embassy, referred to the large demonstration three weeks ago.

Another U.S. military official said there had been no change to the security posture at the embassy. (VOA)

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Militants Regrouping to Attack in Syria, Iraq and Around the World even after Final Victory

“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands"

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IS, islamic state, syria
Many children are growing up in camps since they fled Islamic State militants, missing out on their education, pictured in Hassan Sham, Iraq on Feb. 21, 2019. VOA

In October 2016, Umm Aysha and her three children huddled on the ground outside a bombed-out shopping plaza with a crowd of other women, all wearing the black veils required by Islamic State militants.

They were on the outskirts of Mosul city in Iraq, fleeing a battle as Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces pummeled IS across the region from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city and village to village. “Our house was bombed,” she told VOA, explaining why she fled.

That battle subsided and bit by bit, IS lost the lands they captured over the previous three years. On Saturday, after five years of fighting, the militants lost their last sliver of land, a bombed out camp in Syria. What was once a self-proclaimed “Caliphate,” occupying vast territories in Iraq and Syria and bent on the destruction, is now once again an elusive insurgency.

 But besides broken hearts, homes and families, IS is leaving a new threat in its wake, said Badran Chiya Kurd, an advisor for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which declared the final victory. Militants are regrouping and hope to continue to attacks in Syria, Iraq and around the world, he said.
islamic state, IS, syria
In the final weeks IS held a camp near Baghuz, Syria thousands of people evacuated the area, far more than any militaries or aid groups expected, pictured near Baghuz on March 10, 2019. VOA

Recovery for now-destroyed former IS holdings, including major cities in both Syria and Iraq, will require political will, investment and education, according to Kurd. If cities and towns remain in shambles without services or economies to speak of, extremism will continue to thrive, no matter who is officially in charge, he said.

“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands,” he added, speaking on the phone from his office in Qameshli, Syria.

Over the last few months, SDF forces battled for Baghuz, the last IS stronghold. Militants fought bitterly as IS supporters poured into camps and prisons, often vowing that IS will rise again.

But even back in 2016, when IS’s imminent demise was just becoming apparent in Mosul, Umm Aysha could see members of the group plotting their survival.

“There were two militants wearing veils among the women we came with,” she whispered. “They were wearing makeup and everything.”

Unveiled

The next time we saw Umm Aysha was only a few weeks later in November 2016, but we didn’t recognize her at first. She had cast off the black full-body and face veil and replaced it with a pink headscarf and a smile.

islamic state, syria, IS
In the final weeks IS held a camp near Baghuz, Syria thousands of people evacuated the area, far more than any militaries or aid groups expected, pictured near Baghuz on March 10, 2019. VOA

She was at one of the camps housing displaced families in northern Iraq, and the weeks without bombings had been a relief. The camp was quickly filling up and others were opening across Iraq and Syria. Millions of people would flee their homes as the fighting continued.

“It’s this one,” she said, showing us the tent her family would make a home for the winter, despite the increasingly cold and rainy weather.

She didn’t know then, that this tent would become her only home.

Over the course of the next 28 months, IS-held towns and cities fell to Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces. Thousands of civilians were killed in airstrikes, and the bodies of militants were left strewn across the region.

In the final few months of fighting, many of the most devoted IS fighters finally surrendered after retreating for months or years with the group before their “last stand” in Baghuz.

Syrian camps and prisons are now packed with IS supporters, including thousands of foreigners–fighters, their wives and their children–from countries that are hesitating, and in some cases refusing, to take them back.

islamic state, syria, IS
“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.” VOA

Many areas once occupied by IS have been rebuilt, but many have not. Locals whisper that they still fear IS and describe circumstances that lead to the rise of the group that are still present. The region remains unstable, poor and people often feel neglected by authorities.

“It was lucky we escaped early,” Umm Aysha told VOA in late-February this year as the final battles raged on in Syria. We sat in a small space secluded by tarps and blankest outside her tent, as she held her youngest child. Aysha was born only six months before and has never lived outside a camp. “If we had stayed with IS, who knows what my children would be like?”

Future adults

Umm Aysha’s older three children played in the sun, vying to pose for pictures. They were not in school for different reasons. Marwa is 12, and stays home to help with household chores. Nahida, is 4. “I don’t have a backpack,” she said, explaining why she doesn’t go.

Mahmoud, 8, finds some of the children at school to be bullies and his mom fears the ones whose fathers were IS fighters could teach him extremist ideas.

syria, islamic state, IS
More than 90 percent of the population of al-Hol camp are women and children, and most are related to IS members, in al-Hol camp, Syria, March 4, 2019. VOA

“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.”

At the al-Hol camp in Syria a week later, as IS was in the final throws of battle in Baghuz, children there said they were also not attending school. With about 62,000 new arrivals at the camp since December 4, 2018, the camp is in crisis, short of tents and other far more urgent supplies.

More than 90 percent of the newly-arrived people at al-Hol are women and children, and camp workers say they are nearly all related to IS. Several mothers told us they plan to raise their children to support the next generation of IS, and hope their sons will join the insurgency.

islamic state, IS, syria
Iraqi Federal police tour a neighborhood shortly after a battle, still littered with rubble and bodies of militants in Mosul, Iraq on March 16, 2017. VOA

“My children are free to be fighters or not,” said Umm Mohammed, a mother of five with her black veil fully covering her eyes. “But Islamic State was good.” Like Umm Aysha, Umm Mohammed does not know when, how or if she will be able to move her children out of the camp.

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And across the border in Iraq, Umm Aysha says although she fears IS will soon regroup, that is not the real reason she still lives in a camp, more than two years after she fled her home. She used to live in the suburbs of Mosul, but her neighborhood was destroyed and she doesn’t have the money to rebuild.

“Where would we go back to?” she asked, shrugging. (VOA)