IKARBALA: Iraqi students take part in ongoing anti-government demonstrations in the central Iraqi city of Karbala, yesterday. - AFP

DIWANIYAH: Iraqi protesters flooded the streets yesterday to denounce both Iran and the US as "occupiers", angry that fears of war between the rivals was derailing their anti-government movement. For three months, youth-dominated rallies in the capital and Shiite-majority south have condemned Iraq's ruling class as corrupt, inept and beholden to Iran.

Following a US strike on Baghdad Friday that killed top Iranian and Iraqi commanders, Iraqi lawmakers urged the government Sunday to oust thousands of US troops deployed across the country. For protesters who were hitting the streets, Iran was also a target for blame. "No to Iran, no to America!" chanted hundreds of young Iraqis as they marched through the southern protest hotspot of Diwaniyah.

Young children present carried posters in the shape of Iraq and waved their country's tri-color. "We're taking a stance against the two occupiers: Iran and the US," one demonstrator told AFP. Nearby, a teenage girl held a handwritten signing reading: "Peace be on the land created to live in peace, but which has yet to see a single peaceful day." Iraqi helicopters circled above, surveying the scene.

Relations between Tehran and Washington have been deteriorating since the US abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed crippling economic sanctions. But tensions boiled over during the last week, culminating in a US drone strike outside Baghdad Airport that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and several Iraqi paramilitary leaders.

'Don't ignore our demands'

Some protesters initially rejoiced, having blamed Soleimani for propping up the government they have been trying to bring down since early October. But joy swifty turned to worry, as protesters realized pounding war drums would drown out their calls for peaceful reform of Iraq's government. In a bold move, young protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah blocked a mourning procession for Soleimani and top Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis from reaching their protest camp.

Outraged pro-Iran mourners fired on the protesters, wounding three, medical sources told AFP. "We refuse a proxy war on Iraqi territory and the creation of crisis after crisis," said student Raad Ismail.

"We're warning them: don't ignore our demands, whatever the excuse," he said. The demonstrators are calling for early parliamentary voting based on a new electoral law. They hope this would bring transparent and independent lawmakers to parliament. They have also demanded Iran-their large eastern neighbour which holds sway among Iraqi politicians and military figures-reduce its interventions in Iraq.

Tehran has especially strong ties to the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a military network of mostly-Shiite factions which has been incorporated into the state. The US has accused one vehemently anti-American Hashed faction, Kataeb Hezbollah, of attacking US diplomats and troops in Iraq.

No sovereignty, no state?

On Saturday, Kataeb Hezbollah told Iraqi security forces to "get away" from US troops, sparking fears they would fire rockets at bases shared by soldiers from both countries. Just moments before, explosions rocked the enclave in the Iraqi capital where the US embassy is located and an airbase north of the capital housing American troops. In the shrine city of Karbala, student Ahmad Jawad denounced Soleimani's killing and the ensuing violence. "We refuse that Iraq becomes a battlefield for the US and Iran, because the victims of this conflict will be Iraqis," he told AFP.

Another student, Ali Hussein, was worried about the precarious situation. Iraq's premier Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned last month over the protests but political factions have not agreed on a replacement, and are now focused on the aftermath of the US strike. "The Americans violated Iraq's sovereignty by hitting the Hashed bases and carrying out another strike by the Baghdad airport," said Hussein.

For demonstrators whose main rallying cry had been "We want a country," Hussein said the foreign military operations were jarring. "It's proof that there's no state in Iraq," he said. - AFP