Several thousand protesters, most of them members of Shia paramilitary forces, gathered in central Baghdad on Saturday to demand the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Iraq.
Iraq says Turkey deployed troops and tanks to a base in the country’s north last week without its permission, sparking a diplomatic uproar between Baghdad and Ankara.
Turkey insists the forces were deployed to protect trainers working with Iraqi forces at the site, but Baghdad has repeatedly demanded their withdrawal and complained to the UN Security Council.
Groups within the Hashad al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias, called for the demonstration against the Turkish military presence.
“As the leader of a military brigade, I am not fully satisfied with the government’s action, and we are here to say that Iraq’s patience has run out,” said Ali Rubaie, the commander of a unit usually stationed west of Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi should have struck “with an iron fist at the beginning,” rather than make concessions to Massud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, and others, he said.
“But we are not here to doubt the ability of our commander-in-chief, and as a brigade we are ready,” said Rubaie, who wore a military uniform and had a large Iraqi flag on a pole resting on his shoulder.
Some protesters trampled a Turkish flag and others chanted slogans or waved banners against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Not all the demonstrators were fighters, including businessman Hussein al-Samawi, who came from the city of Samawa, south of Baghdad, to take part.
“We agree with every step the prime minister is taking right now,” said Samawi, who was dressed in a suit.
“We have to pursue the political track, but if it doesn’t work, force will be the only option,” he said.
The demonstration was mostly attended by young men in military uniforms and was well organised, with large processions converging on Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.
The area was heavily guarded by security forces positioned on the ground and atop buildings, and roads were closed for up to several kilometres away from the protest site.
Iraq on Friday circulated a letter among the members of the UN Security Council to express “growing alarm” that the problem was not being resolved.
And Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also criticised the Turkish deployment, which he said was done “under the pretext” of supporting the war against IS.
Trying to unite the country behind him over the issue, Abadi also went on television late Friday to reiterate his warning that Iraq would use “any means” to protect its sovereignty.