Almost every day there are more dead and injured, but the protesters in Iraq do not give up. Not even when security forces crack down on them.
Young people demonstrate against the Iraqi government in Baghdad Photo: Sabah Arar/afp
It is a specific sound that abruptly changes the mood in Tahrir Square in Baghdad. While the protest camp, where thousands of mainly young Iraqis have been camping out since October, was still in a popular mood, it is now hectic. Now that a whole series of whipping shots can be heard from the surrounding streets. Within seconds, dozens of tuktuk motorized rickshaws come roaring in to take the people away. While the drivers feverishly collect their guests, legions of young men make their way in the other direction to defend their place – exactly where the shots are coming from.
Equipped, the protesters from Tahrir Square are mostly only wearing medical masks as mouth guards against tear gas. A few wear helmets and vests with many pockets containing Molotov cocktails. They take a few of the tuktuks to race to the front.
Protesters have been in Tahrir Square for four months now. They are demanding an end to corruption and mismanagement, and they want a new government that is independent of the parties and groups set up along sectarian lines. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has already resigned and is currently only in office on an interim basis until the parties in parliament can agree on a successor.
But that is not enough for the demonstrators. They want to drive out of office all those politicians who hold them responsible for the ills of the country, for their lack of jobs and opportunities, and for the high poverty rate. They hate the sectarian-driven politics that divide them into Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Kurds and Arabs. And precisely because it is so different, wants so much, the protest movement is struggling.
More than 600 dead and 20,000 injured.
The gunfire doesn’t stop. In Tahrir Square, people are waiting to see what will happen now. Many people have gathered in front of the field hospital. "Almost every day we get wounded people coming in here, some are so badly injured that we can’t save them," says Israa Muhammad, a young doctor, "mostly they have bullet wounds, others choke on tear gas." More than 600 deaths and 20,000 injuries have now resulted from the protests in Iraq, reports the Iraqi Commission for Human Rights. Every day, there are a few more dead, a few dozen more injured.
The cell phone vibrates, a colleague, a journalist, warns, "I have it on good authority that the security forces will be coming to the square in a few minutes, pull back." I follow his advice, especially since there are more and more shots, louder and louder. Later on Saturday, the police actually move into the square, set fire to some of the protest tents, but then retreat again. A few of the surrounding streets remain cleared – for the first time in months.
One of the young Iraqis from Tahrir Square – he does not want to give his name for security reasons – tells later in the field hospital what happened: "They started shooting from all directions with live ammunition, they came from all sides – not with tear gas, immediately with live ammunition." He himself received only cuts, which were quickly treated. At least four young protesters lost their lives, more than 40 were injured.
The following morning at the same place, a peaceful Sunday, in bright sunshine, it seems as if nothing had happened: Thousands of students march across the square. Defiantly they are there again, wanting to show that they will not let anything deter them and stop them from their protests. This time, the security forces hold back and stay in the surrounding streets, which small groups of demonstrators try to occupy again. If they move too far into the outer areas of the square, tear gas grenades fly in. In the square itself, however, things are peaceful.
They are not afraid of the shots
"Last night we already rebuilt our tents and replaced the ones burned down by the police. If they torch one tent, we will put up ten more," says Baher Muhammad, one of the students. "Our message to all parties in Iraq, all outside and all who listen to Iran: Your days are numbered. You are firing live ammunition at us. You are killing us, you are imprisoning us. And we are still standing here. Do you really think we’re going home after all this?" he asks rhetorically.
Baher Muhammad, student
If they burn down one tent, we’ll put up ten more"
Young Zahra Fuad huddles next to him. "They want to scare us. We are not afraid, not even of their bullets. We just want our rights. What more is there than to kill us and oppress us. We can no longer remain silent. We’ve just had enough," she says, upset.
This exactly describes the problem of the Iraqi government, the sectarian parties and the security forces. After all, what does it take to get the protesters off the streets? Now that you’ve shot 600 protesters and the movement continues to take to the streets anyway. Or should they be responded to after all?
"This is an uprising of the young. We have no orders from any parties. We will not pull out if any parties demand that of us. Anyone can join us. And those who don’t want to come, we don’t need them," says Baher, a student. This is probably a hidden reference to the followers of the Shiite preacher Muktada al-Sadr, who broke down their tents on Tahrir Square on Saturday at the behest of their spiritual and political leader. Sadr had not greeted the many voices in the square who had criticized a large demonstration he initiated Friday for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In Tahrir Square, many demonstrators are skeptical of the Shiite politician who uses his influence as a popular preacher, whose people sit in government and parliament, but who at the same time plays the opposition card in the streets.
The Wild Card of Iraqi Politics
Peaceful protest despite excesses of violence: Students carry the Iraqi flag Photo: thaier al-Sudani/reuters
Time and again in recent years, Sadr has proven that he can mobilize large numbers of supporters, especially from the Shiite poor quarters. In doing so, he always leaves all doors open: Sometimes he sympathizes with the demonstrators from Tahrir Square and sends his people there in an attempt to co-opt the new protest movement. Then he withdraws them again because they do not agree with his course against the presence of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and because they are too anti-Iranian for his taste. In short, Sadr is currently the wild card in Iraqi politics. Many believe that the reason for Saturday’s police attack was that the square had lost its protective shield with the departure of Sadr supporters.
Meanwhile, the square is demonstratively resounding with a well-known protest song titled "The Tail Tucked In." In Arabic, the tail is figuratively the appendage, referring primarily to those Shiite groups in Iraq with strong ties to Iran. The students sing along loudly, jumping up and down in time with the music. "You will not silence us, you will have to listen to us, because we are growing. We will take every millimeter of our rights from you," they sing.
Since the religious Shiite parties and their groups are coming under fire in this way, they are trying to set up their own protest movement in return. Their stomach and soul theme with which they mobilize: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. They see the killing of Iranian General Soleimani on Iraqi soil shortly after the turn of the year by the Americans as an opportunity to retake the reins of power.
On Friday, Sadr and other Shiite religious groups had called for a major demonstration in Baghdad. Unlike Tahrir Square, where young demonstrators come of their own accord, they had carted their supporters together from all over the country. They then walked around with prefabricated signs that read, for example, as a threat to U.S. troops, "You came to us vertically, you will leave us horizontally." Sadr is celebrating the mass rally as a success, but many of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square note that Sadr has not been able to mobilize the millions he said he would.
American withdrawal is not a priority
In Tahrir Square, there is no desire to be harnessed to this cart. "Every problem in this region falls on our heads. The Syrian civil war gave us IS here in Iraq. And now that I’m done with it, we’re the site of the dispute between the U.S. and Iran, which we have nothing to do with," says student Natiq Hussein, sitting outside one of the tents.
Israa Faruk, another student, agrees. "The assassination of Soleimani is not our issue. This is an issue that is taking place above our heads. We want to change our homeland. We want to live in peace. We want freedom. We want to get rid of the corrupt government." The American withdrawal issue is not her priority, she said. She wants her demands for reform to be met first. "When we have defeated corruption and created a strong state, then I will oppose anyone who violates Iraqi sovereignty, whether that is the Iranians or the Americans. At the moment, I have more important demands," sei summarized.
The problem for the demonstrators in Tahrir Square is that the other protest movement in Iraq has the louder arguments. Whenever shells or Katyus rockets hit the U.S. Embassy, as they did Sunday night, they and their demands are forgotten. They try to resist with good humor in their Tahrir Square. They want to prove that they have the staying power, and loudly sing encouragement to each other with their hymns about change in Iraq.
A dozen of them now hold the edge of a blanket tightly. One by one, they take turns climbing onto the blanket, where they are tossed into the air with a 1-2-3 cheer. As if they wanted to show in all their exuberance that they have had enough of the old system, want to break out and, above all, finally want to get up high. A few meters next to them is a stand with symbolic coffins. There, the pictures of their dead are hung up in memory, mostly very young faces of demonstrators. Next to them they have placed flower pots. It is a bath of conflicting emotions in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Defiant, chanting and stomping joy, deep sorrow and a tense waiting for when the whipping of gunshots will be heard again.