Protests In Iraq Are Growing In Both Size And Ambition

Nov 4, 2019
Originally published on November 4, 2019 7:55 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. Let's go around the world now to Baghdad. From atop a building in that city, a building that protesters have seized, you can watch a sea of people in the streets. Protests there have gone on for weeks; so has violence. Today, several more people were killed by security forces. NPR's Jane Arraf reports that huge crowds built over the weekend, and their ambitions are growing.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In Baghdad's Tahrir Square, Iraqi society has been turned upside down. Young men driving tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled vehicles driven and ridden in by the poor, have become heroes. Unpaid, they brave crowds of protesters, facing off against Iraqi security forces to rush the wounded to ambulances.

Mustafa is 18, from Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad, a stronghold of support for Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, except...

MUSTAFA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "I'm independent," Mustafa shouts. He says he doesn't follow anyone - not Sadr, not even Iraq's most revered Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani, more influential than any political leader. He gives us his full name, but people are being kidnapped and arrested even just for speaking out. We're using just first names.

MUSTAFA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "I want my rights. We haven't seen anything good in the past 16 years," he says. That, of course, was when the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Mustafa is part of the first Iraqi generation to grow up without Saddam. Iraq is a rich country, and he wants what almost everyone else in the square wants - a job, public services and not just a change in Parliament but an end to the parliamentary system and corrupt political parties.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: "We don't want a Parliament they stole from us," says another tuk-tuk driver. "We want Iraqi leaders, not people from Iran," says another.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ARRAF: The drivers break into a rousing chorus of, uproot them; they're all thieves.

You could dismiss this as the kind of protest that regularly springs up and then dies down, except it's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS SOUNDING)

ARRAF: Around 250 unarmed protesters have now been killed in protests in Baghdad in the south of Iraq, some of them shot by security forces in the head or the chest. Riot police are now using tear gas and rubber bullets, but protesters are still dying almost every day. And rather than frightening off the protesters, it's made them more determined to dig in until the entire government falls.

Beyond the carnival-like atmosphere of Tahrir Square, where families stroll waving Iraqi flags, is a front line of what protesters call their revolution.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: It starts at an abandoned high-rise overlooking both Tahrir Square and the bridge to the Green Zone. It's a strategic asset. There are holes in the walls where snipers were believed to have shot at unarmed demonstrators. Protesters occupy the building now.

We're 13 stories up in this building that has become both a symbol and a citadel in a sense; a place that protesters say they're willing to defend with their lives.

And they might have to. The Iraqi government and Iran-backed militias have made clear they're prepared to use force to defend the Green Zone and the Iranian Embassy. This isn't just a popular uprising against the Iraqi government. It's one against Iranian interference in Shia-dominated Iraq.

It's dangerous, no?

ALI: Yes, of course it's dangerous.

ARRAF: That's Ali, a university graduate who speaks English and Russian and drives a taxi because he doesn't have the money to bribe someone to get a government job. The protesters have turned their backs on political parties, even religious leaders. They're demanding an Iraqi government that serves Iraqis. Kamal Jabbar (ph) has been an activist for years. He's trying to advise the young protesters.

KAMAL JABBAR: I'm hoping we can mobilize this energy; turn this anger and this madness into a peaceful resolution to convince the international community to listen to them.

ARRAF: The demands of a generation that feels it's been robbed won't go away.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.