Hundreds of thousands protest US troop presence in Iraq

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Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, waving national flags, take to the streets in central Baghdad on January 24, 2020.

(CNN) — Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Baghdad on Friday calling for US troops to leave Iraq, heeding the call of powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who called for a "Million Man March."

Families and children held aloft signs that read "no, no to America" and "no, no to occupation" amid a sea of Iraqi flags. A heavy security presence surrounded the path of the march, as well as the Green Zone which houses the US embassy.

The Green Zone has been the site of multiple rocket attacks that have increased in frequency since a US attack in Baghdad killed Iran's most powerful military general, Qasem Soleimani, and the Iran-backed Iraqi commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The targeted killing on January 3 sparked growing calls for US troops to leave the country, as many Iraqis criticized what they see as a breach of its sovereignty. There are roughly 5,000 US troops in Iraq.

Iraq's parliament voted to expel the US military from the country following the attack, but the Trump administration has said it does not intend to pull troops out.

At the rally, Sadr reiterated calls for US troops to leave the country in a bid to steer clear of "another war." Iraqi President Barham Salih tweeted an image of the protest. "Iraqis insist on a state with complete sovereignty that will not be breached," tweeted Salih.

Protesters carried posters with caricatures of US President Donald Trump. One showed Trump on the back of a tank, his head sticking out of a ballot box, an apparent reference to the upcoming US election.

Thurgham al-Tamimi arrived at the protests from Karbala with his two children, his wife and his father. "We came here to answer the call of the nation," he told CNN. "Our country is exposed to foreign interference from East and West," an apparent reference to both Iran, which has growing influence in the country, and the United States.

"We don't want any country to decide the fate of Iraq. We want to see Iraq with full sovereignty," he added.

Tamimi wore a white shroud over his shoulders. He said it symbolized his willingness to make a "sacrifice" for the sake of the country.

Some protesters said they also wished to shake off Iran's political influence in the country. "We don't want Iran in Iraq either. We respect them as a neighbor but they should not have a say in Iraq and no one should interfere in our internal affairs," said Um Ahmed, who declined to disclose her full name.

"No to America, and no to Iran. Iraq is for Iraqis," she added.

Iraqis whom CNN spoke to in recent weeks criticized Trump's targeted killing of Soleimani, and said they feared becoming caught in the middle of a war between the US and Iran. Many across Iraq's political divide have called on their government to avoid turning the country into a "battleground state."

Iran responded to the US targeted killing by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US positions in Iraq, leading some US troops to be treated for concussions. At al-Asad base, which bore the bulk of the attack, US troops received advance warning, and most had already taken cover in bunkers when the missiles struck.

Iraq has also been mired in an internal political crisis, with thousands of anti-government protesters taking to the streets. The demonstrators have protested against corruption perceived as widespread, and object to Iran's growing influence in the country.

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