In Shiite holy city of Karbala, Iraqis protest against Iranian ‘meddling’

Screengrab FRANCE 24 | Protesters in 'Freedom Square' in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala.

A FRANCE 24 team reporting from the southern Iraqi city of Karbala find a previously unthinkable development: demonstrators in the Shiite stronghold protesting against Iran’s interference in Iraq.


Waving placards and Iraqi national flags, the crowd in the Shiite holy city of Karbala responds en masse to activist Hussein Sabri’s chants.

"No one is honest in this government,” intones Sabri addressing protesters at a Karbala roundabout now named “Freedom Square”.

“Corrupt! Corrupt!” the crowd roars its response in unison.

Iraqis have been demonstrating in the thousands since anti-government protests erupted October 1 in the capital, Baghdad, and quickly spread to other parts of the country.

The mostly peaceful demonstrations have sometimes been met with police firing live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters, killing more than 300 people.

In Karbala – one of Shiism’s holiest cities, where a 7th-century battle resulted in Islam’s biggest schism between Sunnis and Shiites – the unthinkable has happened.

“The government doesn’t even rule any more. They’re Iran’s puppets. If Iran loosens its grip, then things can change,” explained a protester.

‘I get threats, a lot of threats’

Open critiques among Iraqi Shiites of Iran’s interference in Iraq has been an unexpected development in the protest movement.

Earlier this month, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala, amid reports of security forces and unknown gunmen opening fire.

But the threats have not stopped Sabri, a father of three who has stopped working to protest on “Freedom Square” every day.

Sitting in his modest living room next to his wife and young daughter, Sabri says he’s protesting for his children and for Iraq’s next generation

"I get threats, a lot of threats, against myself or my family. Once I was on stage and a man brandished a sharp object at me, but I will not stop. Today, when my daughter goes to school she has no bench to sit on, when I go to the hospital, there are medicine shortages... that's all because of the government. If I don't rise up and revolt, I will have failed my daughter's generation," he explains.

Iran in the crosshairs

Over the past few weeks, Iran has been finding itself in the crosshairs of Arab protesters from Baghdad to Beirut.

But Karbala, a city that boasts pilgrimage facilities from hotels to toilets funded by Iran, is particularly beholden to Iraq’s powerful neighbor across the eastern border.

Pro-Iranian political and community leaders are at pains to note that it was Iran that saved the country, particularly Shiites, when the hardline Sunni Islamic State (IS) group swept through northern Iraq.

"We have been through difficult times, no one was willing to help us apart from Iran. They gave us military assistance, they armed us, trained us and advised us. Our Arab brothers let us down, just like those nations who say they are our friends," explains Sheikh Ali al-Khazai, an Islamic scholar.

While anti-Iran sentiments are on display at public protests, Iraq still has influential figures beholden to Iran. It could mark the battleground for the Iraqi protest movement in the days and months to come.

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