This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
When Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed by the US military in an airstrike last Friday, I woke up to find my timeline filled with news of World War III. The attack, which took place at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – and eight others.
Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He was widely regarded as the second most powerful person in Iran after the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
While extreme, talk of World War III referred to a very real expectation that Iran would react violently to the killings. Since then, a lot has happened very quickly. On Sunday, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel US troops because it saw the attacks as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. By Wednesday, the IRGC had fired 22 missiles at two US bases housing troops in Iraq. "The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun," said the IRGC in a statement on messaging app Telegram, while Khamenei warned on Wednesday that the missile attacks were not a "sufficient response" to Soleimani's death.
Before Iran's missile attacks, the US had already announced it was sending 3,500 extra soldiers to the Middle East, and demanded all American citizens leave Iraq immediately. After the strikes, President Trump tweeted, "All is well!" and reiterated that the US has the world's strongest military. Trump also gave a televised speech addressing the nation on Wednesday evening, suggesting the tensions might be easing for the moment.
While the powers-at-be make decisions about what the future relationship between the US and Iran will look like, the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to be complicated. Since early October, the country has been swept by a wave of protests involving tens of thousands of demonstrators. At the beginning, the movement was challenging institutional corruption and Iranian interference in local politics, but Soleimani's assassination marked a turning point. Many Iraqis fear they will be dragged into a proxy war between the US and Iran, while others see Soleimani's death as a positive development.
I went to the protests the day after the killing, and again on Wednesday, to talk to people in the crowd about what this all means for the future of the movement.
Montazer Mahdi, a 35-year-old Iraqi protester who has been demonstrating in Baghdad since October, told me on Saturday that he thinks Soleimani’s death won't impact the demonstrations: "The killing of Soleimani, who described [protesters] as 'saboteurs', will not affect the future of the popular movement. On the contrary, we will continue to demonstrate and demand our rights."
But Ahmed al-Khatib, a 26-year-old activist from Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, who I spoke to on Wednesday, disagrees. "The killing of Soleimani led to a split in the ranks of the demonstrators," he said, adding that, besides the geopolitical calculations, many Iraqi Shiites respected the general for helping in the fight against ISIS. Al-Khatib believes the divisions have weakened the movement: "The momentum has been diminished, at least for now."
The day after the killing, 24-year-old Iraqi Mohammed Qasim from the city of Basra said he considered Soulemani’s death "a victory", adding he was as happy with the news as when he heard about the assassination of Iraqi-born ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. "Both Al Baghdadi and Soleimani caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqi people," he said. "Everyone should know that Iraq is only for Iraqi people, and I say to the US and Iran: whoever wants to start a war must leave the country and fight somewhere else."
Iran has heavily invested in supporting military missions of Shia paramilitary groups in the Middle East, including in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, with the goal of tipping local power structures in Iran's favour without direct military intervention. Soleimani was the chief strategist of these operations, and the military division he led, the Quds Force, played a very important role in executing these plans.
"Soleimani's presence in Iraq was as legal as the presence of foreign experts from the US or other countries," said 28-year-old Ali Abdul Salam on Saturday. He considered the strike a violation of Iraq's sovereignty and of the security agreement between the country and the United States. "The death of Soleimani means more escalations and complications not only in Iraq, but in the whole region… it is essential to get rid of the US since they have no respect for Iraqi sovereignty."
On the same day, Haider al-Shami, 31, expressed grief for PMF’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis: "Soleimani may have deserved it, although under no circumstances should he have been killed on Iraqi soil. But I mourned the death of al-Muhandis. He had an important role in liberating many Iraqi regions from ISIS. There's a difference between the militias who came to power to kill Iraqis and those who sacrificed and fought for the country."
Later that day, I talked to Mousa, a 28-year-old master's student, who believed Soleimani's killing reflected a mad world no longer controlled by the international conventions drawn up after WWII. "The manner in which Soleimani was killed on his way from the airport in a presumably sovereign country is unethical, illegal and frightening," he told me. He added that Soleimani may be a disputed figure, but said no other country has had a more negative impact on Iraq than the United States. "Between Iran and America, I am, of course, against America first and foremost. The American invasion is the origin of all this evil in Iraq, and you cannot fix everything that America destroyed before it left Iraq completely and forever."
After the recent Iranian attack on US bases in Iraq, Ahmed al-Khatib told me he believes things will cool down. "I do not expect the US will respond – no one is interested in starting a war," he said. "Iran's response was calculated and there were no casualties. And Trump confirmed that in his speech. We fear that we [in Iraq] will be the only ones losing in all of this."
Ali Kareem, a 24-year-old from Basra Governorate, is worried that the events of last weekend may lead to economic sanctions against Iraq, as Trump alluded to after the Iraqi parliament said US troops had overstayed their welcome. "If economic sanctions are imposed on Iraq, this will lead to a large deficit in the public budget – we'll suffer from an economic situation worse than the blockade that the US imposed on Iraq in the 1990s," said Kareem. "Back then, Iraq's agriculture and industry sectors were in much better shape, whereas today Iraq is completely dependent on oil, and that is a big problem in itself."
Kareem thinks it was wrong for parliament to expel the US, because he believes it’s just a reaction to the death rather than a move that's in the country's best interests. "We do not stand with Iran or with America," he said. "We want to be friends with everyone – we don't want to side with any party at the expense of Iraqi people's lives and sovereignty."