On a recent morning, at the foot of a towering building known as the Turkish restaurant in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a man dressed in black rallied a small audience, calling for an end to the United States’ presence in Iraq.
“Blue caps against American interference,” the crowd clamoured, wielding batons and metal rods underneath a clear, blue sky.
The men – nicknamed the blue caps after their signature headgear – are die-hard supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shia leader known for his mercurial temper and large, cult-like following which includes a well-armed militia.
“Blue, because it’s the colour of peace,” explained 38-year-old Nateq Al Gerawi pointing to a fellow cap-wearing Sadrist.
But just two hours later, videos were posted online showing alleged Sadrists striking young anti-government student protesters with batons.
For months Al-Sadr worked to remain at the forefront of Iraq’s anti-government protests, a popular movement that swept across the capital and southern cities in October, driven by demands for basic services, more job opportunities and an end to government corruption and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. His followers provided support and at times a degree of protection to the civilian uprising.
But in recent weeks al-Sadr has shifted position. In late January, he withdrew support for the protests only to call on his supporters to return to the streets a week later, causing confusion among those on the streets and widening a rift between his die-hard supporters and the largely leaderless youth who have driven the protest movement. Al-Sadr then approved the decision to name Mohammed Allawi as prime minister-designate, a choice that has been met with opposition among the non-aligned protesters.
Earlier this week, seven protesters were killed and more than 150 wounded when clashes broke out between protesters and organised Sadrists in Najaf.
The incident came just hours after al-Sadr called on his supporters to “come together to reveal the saboteurs and the nationalist pretenders by helping the security forces.
“The blue hats have to pave the way for this with love, peace and compassion,” he said in a Tweet.
In his weekly sermon on Friday, the revered Iraqi Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the security forces for failing to protect the protesters in Najaf. “There is no excuse for shirking that duty,” he said.
That afternoon, a group of non-aligned protesters marched through Tahrir carrying the Iraqi flag and chanting: “Sistani, your sons are in Tahrir.”
A stone’s throw away, inside the Turkish restaurant, women clad in black chanted slogans in support of the Mahdi army, al-Sadr’s militia, known since 2014 as Saraya al-Salam.