BAGHDAD — Joint military operations with the U.S.-led coalition to counter the Islamic State group have resumed after a nearly three-week pause, an Iraqi military statement said Thursday.
Meanwhile, anti-government protesters called for 1 million Iraqis to take to the streets Friday in what they said was a “last chance” for the protest movement to build on momentum gained after followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr packed up and left last week.
The pause in joint anti-ISIS operations came amid heightened tensions after a Washington-led airstrike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
The statement said joint operations had resumed in light of the continued threat posed by ISIS. Militants belonging to the group are holed up in parts of northern Iraq.
The statement also implied that Baghdad was standing by intentions to reorganize Iraq's military relationship with the U.S.
“In light of continued activities by the terrorist group (ISIS) in many areas of Iraq and for the purpose of making use of the remaining time of the international coalition before organizing a new relationship ... it was decided to carry out joint actions,” the statement said.
The statement was issued by the office of the armed forces' commander in chief. As prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi assumes that role.
The coalition paused operations in support of Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS militants on Jan. 5 after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran's elite Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Iraq soil, sparking outrage among Iraqi officials.
Lawmakers passed a resolution to oust foreign troops from Iraq after the U.S. strike. The coalition refocused on protecting military personnel amid fears of an Iranian counter-attack.
Despite signs of de-escalation after Iran retaliated with a barrage of missiles on two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S troops that caused no fatalities, outgoing Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi has been vocal that American troops should withdraw and has said steps are being taken to move the process forward.
Activists said the aim of Friday’s protest was to pressure President Barham Saleh to select a new candidate for prime minister after weeks of deadlock and a looming constitutional crisis.
Political blocs have been jockeying over the selection since Abdul-Mahdi resigned in December under pressure from demonstrations.
Saleh has given political blocs until Feb. 1 to select a candidate or else he would select one himself, he said in a statement Wednesday.
Al-Sadr expressed his “disappointment” at anti-government protesters and withdrew his support for the movement. The demonstrators had spoken out against an anti-U.S. rally organized by al-Sadr supporters. Analysts said the withdrawal was al-Sadr's attempt to gain leverage in ongoing premier selection talks.
His followers and his militia group had been protecting demonstrators from security forces and unknown groups seeking to suppress the movement. Their departure was followed by a security crackdown in which at least four protesters were killed and tents were burned.
Protesters, fearing security forces would root them out of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the movement, called for thousands to defy al-Sadr and take to the streets in response.
The withdrawal of al-Sadr’s support has altered the dynamics of the four-month protest movement, some activists say.
Kamal Jaban, an activist camped out in Tahrir, said al-Sadr’s followers had accounted for nearly a third of the tents in the square. He said Friday’s protest was the movement’s “last chance” to mobilize the street and push for reform.
On Thursday evening, the once bustling plaza was relatively quiet.
“Did he affect us? Yes. But did he affect the trajectory of the movement? No,” said Jaban. “Maybe he put a few sticks in the wheel.”
Support from al-Sadr was crucial in parliament’s passing of an electoral reform bill, a key demand of demonstrators. The cleric is also the head of the Saeroon bloc, which won the largest number of seats in the May 2018 federal election.
“The bad thing is protesters feel less secure. The good thing is day by day protesters are gaining confidence that we can do it alone,” said Jaban.
Protesters said they were taking their own self protection measures by looking out for suspicious cars and communicating through walkie-talkies. But many feared this was not enough.
Abdul Razzak, 21, is a supporter of al-Sadr but said he was “shocked” by his withdrawal of support. He is among the few followers of the cleric who have remained in Tahrir d espite the order to leave.
“I am shocked,” he said. “But we gave a promise that we will not return until the revolution succeeds.”
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed from Baghdad.