‘Who will protect us?’: Baghdad residents await fighting as city grinds to a halt | Iraq

As night fell over Baghdad on Monday, many Iraqis wondered if their country would wake up to another civil war. Much of the city stayed awake, unable to sleep, listening to the din of heavy machine gun fire, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades echoing through the deserted streets.

“The air conditioner blew up, but we still couldn’t sleep. It was like we were on a battlefield,” said Dina al-Saadi, a university professor who lives in a neighborhood near the heaviest fighting.

Iraq has been on a collision course for months. After rising political tensions between rival Shia parties stalled the formation of a new government, the struggle for power swept the streets as, at the heart of the Green Party, fierce fighting broke out between supporters of the populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and groups allied with Iran Escape Zone, an ultra-secure area housing embassies and government institutions.

Militants fire rockets at Baghdad's fortified Green Zone as clashes erupt - videoMilitants fire rockets at Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone as clashes erupt – video

The clashes brought back memories of the deadly chaos that swept Baghdad’s streets after the 2003 invasion and fueled fears of renewed violence. “One immediately thinks back to 2004,” said Saadi. “There is no security, there is no protection, there is no state. Who will protect us?”

Almost 20 years after the US invasion, Iraq is still fighting for peace. The recent crisis has once again exposed the weakness of their institutions and the fragility of the post-2003 political order.

At the heart of the conflict is a power struggle between the country’s elites. Since 2003, Iraq has been governed by consensus, with ministerial posts divided among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties through a sectarian power-sharing formula that ensures fair access to resources. But the practice has institutionalized corruption, eroding a once-functioning bureaucracy that is now unable to provide the most basic services.

Mass protests erupted in 2019 demanding an overhaul of the political system. In response, the government held snap elections last October. But instead of paving the way for change, the vote brought a new crisis.

Sadr emerged victorious, attempting to form a majority government without his Iran-allied Shia opponents on the pretext of wanting reforms. His rivals viewed the move as a power grab, while many Iraqis accuse both sides of jostling for government posts at the expense of ordinary people.

“They are all just following their own interests. None of them think about Iraq,” Saadi said, rattling off a list of complaints including the ailing state of Iraq’s infrastructure and the declining quality of higher education.

The clashes began shortly after Sadr announced his retirement from politics on Monday, effectively giving his supporters carte blanche to vent their anger. Sadr’s religious base consists of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis drawn from the poorest strata of society, but he also commands a militia called Saraya al-Salam. On the other side are powerful armed wings of parties allied with Iran, led by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

Staccato machine gun fire interspersed with deep bangs from bazookas continued to erupt in central Baghdad on Tuesday. Security forces were stationed on the main roads, but they did not appear to intervene in clashes between rival Shia forces stationed on opposite sides of the green zone.

“We are fighting the corrupt militias while the government security forces look on,” Sadr supporter Abbas Ali said as smoke filled the distant sky.

The chaos had an eerie routine. Neighborhoods had been cordoned off with concrete barriers to enforce the curfew, and bored soldiers checked IDs to ensure only residents were allowed through. Streets that would normally be clogged with traffic were almost empty save for vehicles bringing young men to the front lines.

“People are used to it,” said viewer Rashwan Fouad as he lit a cigarette. “Iraq has been through so much. This is nothing but a snapshot of our history.”

Commercial life had come to a standstill, and only a few shops were open in a country where most people live on daily wages. “We just want to live. Everyone has a family, everyone has to pay rent,” said Abdallah, a shopkeeper and father of three who had defied the curfew hoping to make a living. His usual 20-minute commute to work had taken him two hours to walk.

As he spoke, the television in the corner began broadcasting a live press conference in which Sadr condemned the violence. The cleric’s forgiving tone seemed to signal a path to de-escalation. “Thank God,” said Abdalla and breathed a sigh of relief. “We just want a peaceful solution.”