Baghdad, Iraq – On a the latest morning, at the foot of a towering making acknowledged as the Turkish restaurant in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a male dressed in black rallied a small audience, calling for an conclude to the United States‘ presence in Iraq.

“Blue caps from American interference,” the group clamoured, wielding batons and steel rods underneath a obvious, blue sky.

The men – nicknamed the blue caps right after their signature headgear – are die-tricky supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a outstanding Iraqi Shia leader acknowledged for his mercurial temper and large, cult-like following which consists of a effectively-armed militia.

“Blue, mainly because it’s the colour of peace,” described 38-yr-aged Nateq Al Gerawi pointing to a fellow cap-donning Sadrist.

But just two hours afterwards, movies were posted on the web showing alleged Sadrists hanging young anti-government university student protesters with batons.

For months Al-Sadr worked to stay at the forefront of Iraq’s anti-government protests, a well-known movement that swept throughout the money and southern towns in Oct, driven by requires for primary companies, a lot more job chances and an conclude to government corruption and overseas interference in Iraqi affairs. His followers delivered guidance and at times a diploma of defense to the civilian rebellion.

But in the latest months al-Sadr has shifted situation. In late January, he withdrew guidance for the protests only to simply call on his supporters to return to the streets a week afterwards, creating confusion among the people on the streets and widening a rift amongst his die-tricky supporters and the mostly leaderless youth who have driven the protest movement. Al-Sadr then approved the final decision to name Mohammed Allawi as key minister-designate, a choice that has been achieved with opposition among the the non-aligned protesters.

Before this week, seven protesters were killed and a lot more than a hundred and fifty wounded when clashes broke out amongst protesters and organised Sadrists in Najaf.


The incident arrived just hours right after al-Sadr named on his supporters to “come collectively to expose the saboteurs and the nationalist pretenders by aiding the safety forces.

“The blue hats have to pave the way for this with really like, peace and compassion,” he reported in a Tweet.

In his weekly sermon on Friday, the revered Iraqi Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the safety forces for failing to safeguard the protesters in Najaf. “There is no justification for shirking that duty,” he reported.

That afternoon, a team of non-aligned protesters marched by means of Tahrir carrying the Iraqi flag and chanting: “Sistani, your sons are in Tahrir.”

A stone’s toss absent, inside of the Turkish restaurant, females clad in black chanted slogans in guidance of the Mahdi military, al-Sadr’s militia, acknowledged since 2014 as Saraya al-Salam.

The Turkish restaurant making was the moment a hub for protesters [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

‘They’ve split the square in two’

For the initially months of Iraq’s rebellion, the Turkish restaurant in Baghdad was acknowledged for becoming a protest stronghold and a spot for communal gathering. On Sunday al-Sadr supporters removed the demonstrators, turning the unfinished making into a bare and tranquil area.

“Muqtada al-Sadr is killing us,” reported a teenage protester, in advance of catching a glimpse of a loitering tall male in a blue hat and decreasing his voice.

Sadr supporters choose iconic Tahrir Square making

“They are killing in Baghdad and in Nasiriya [and] they took down the images of our victims,” he reported, pointing to the Turkish restaurant, in which the portraits of killed protesters the moment hung but were torn down by Sadr’s supporters.

Some protesters say they are grateful for the arrival of the blue caps. “They cleared the [Turkish] restaurant of medicine,” reported Jamal Jassm, forty eight.

Others, like a 17-yr-aged acknowledged as Vife, say they have stopped sensation comfy inside of Tahrir square: “They’re at checkpoints and starting to give us orders”.

What appeared to be a unified civilian movement soon fractured into opposing camps as reports of violent incidents increased.

In Tahrir Square, the division is stark, with blue caps congregating principally all around the Turkish restaurant and manning checkpoints, and non-aligned protesters rallying upcoming to the Independence Monument, with Tahrir’s occupied roundabout performing as a buffer zone.

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Medo and other young protesters say the blue caps are creating divisions in the protest movement [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

“The blue caps have split the square into two, we’re seeking to reunite the square,” reported Medo, a 19-yr-aged protester who requested that his actual title not be employed.

“They insult us, if we reply again, they threaten us with violence,” reported yet another young protester sitting in a tent by the Tigris river.

But Medo and his buddies say they know what they are up from – a gang of armed men whose allegiance to Muqtada al-Sadr is main.

Roots of ability

Al-Sadr was born into 1 of the country’s most outstanding religious people in 1974, but his father, Grand Ayatollah Moḥammad Sadeq al-Sadr, did not intend for his seminary to be inherited by his son. Rather, he still left it in the fingers of a fellow scholar, who in the long run delegated the duty to Muqtada.

And when he inherited his father’s followers, not everyone reliable that al-Sadr could dwell up to the Grand Ayatollah’s iconic impression.

His risky mother nature and inadequate academic record – young Muqtada did not entire his religious research – were effectively acknowledged among the the Iraqi general public and several, such as politicians, as effectively as neighbouring Iran remained sceptical.

His potent spouse and children ties served him maintain his situation of authority and in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, al-Sadr made a bid to broaden his political ability. Harnessing nationalistic sentiment in the place, he commenced to establish his eponymous political movement along with an anti-US militia, effectively captivating to millions of followers from lower-profits areas by offering schooling and health companies.

The young religious scholar’s frequently reckless final decision-building did not discourage aged and new followers alike from backing him as he crafted a political base, lending him the well-known guidance that would afterwards make him a essential ability broker in Iraqi politics as the head of the Sairoon Alliance.

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A regional imam in Sadr metropolis is section of the potent Shia leader’s team of die-tricky supporters [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera] 

In May possibly 2018, Sairoon won the most significant number of seats in the country’s parliamentary elections, properly supplying its leader veto ability in the latest deliberations to appoint a new government.

Al-Sadr “likes to pretend to be a cleric over and outside of the political, but really, anything he’s done … and particularly his militiamen, are anchored in a political comprehending of the place that they’re in … their guidelines are political, not religious,” Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Info Centre (EGIC), instructed Al Jazeera.

Although Iran was the moment suspicious of relying on al-Sadr’s risky mother nature, his the latest visits and conferences in Iran recommend a marked advancement in his romance with the neighbouring place, with some analysts suggesting Tehran is showing a newfound readiness to guidance al-Sadr, more emboldening him in his quest for ability.

“Now that the dust has settled in relation to the Iraq-Iran romance, the moment again, his flavour of the month is Tehran,” reported Belfer. But as he rises by means of the ranks of Iraq’s political procedure, al-Sadr could be getting rid of the guidance among the his less-hardened supporters, particularly people who have joined the protests.  

‘He’s a superior leader, but…’

In January al-Sadr momentarily withdrew his guidance for the anti-government protests when he named for a separate “million-male march” from the US existence in Iraq. Many envisioned to see the country’s squares vacant out and for demonstrators to be a part of the anti-US protests.

But anti-government protesters nevertheless gathered individually from the Sadrists, environment the phase for the afterwards clashes amongst rival groups.

Anti-Sadrists took to social media to publicly denounce al-Sadr, when some Sadrists brazenly defied the Islamic scholar’s commands.

Ali, a 29-yr-aged male from Sadr Metropolis and a staunch al-Sadr supporter did not heed the cleric’s orders to depart the protests.

“I really like Muqtada al-Sadr mainly because he was the 1 who fought from the American interference, the initially 1 to simply call for demonstrations,” reported Ali. “He’s a superior leader but I’m participating in these demonstrations [for the] homeland, not al-Sadr and I will nevertheless be in the square participating until eventually I achieve the requires of the martyrs.”

But when al-Sadr named on his supporters to return to the streets previous week, some anti-government protesters reported they would not be welcome. “We do not depend on al-Sadr supporters, we do not want them again, not until eventually they are free of charge,” reported 60-yr-aged Abdul Ridha Abdul Raheem. 

In accordance to EGIC’s Belfer, the first guidance lent by al-Sadr to the demonstrations was not a “genuine acceptance of their requires, but instead a way for him to physical exercise a diploma of control”.

“His safety staff, his militiamen, were fundamentally ‘protecting’ the demonstrators, but really what they were actually accomplishing was learning their power and their weaknesses, their leadership,” reported Belfer.

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Protests have shaken Iraq for four months but demonstrators nevertheless find time to take it easy [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]