Failure and Frustration Mar Baghdad's Day of Protest

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As Iraqis rally for change, their disjointed mixture of demands puts the country's fragile stability at risk

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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On Friday morning, not long after protesters arrived at Baghdad's Tahrir Square to gather around the Freedom Memorial, a stone and bronze facade depicting soldiers and laborers working in solidarity to overthrow the old monarchy, a throng of several thousand flocked toward an even more provocative symbol: the Green Zone. But they arrived at the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge to find a 15-foot-tall concrete blast wall, erected overnight, blocking passage across the Tigris River. The protesters surged toward the barrier standing between them and the halls of power.

Attempting to keep the peace, a few dozen organizers rushed ahead of the mob and linked arms to form a human chain. For half an hour they kept everyone back. But shortly after noon, the protesters began chanting, "In blood, in ourselves, we sacrifice for Iraq," and pressed forward to the blast wall. Within minutes, young men stood atop the wall, waving triumphantly. A few jumped down to the other side. They tied ropes to one of the wall's segments, and heaved backward as the crowd pushed forward. The panel of cement, at least two feet thick and the width of three men, crashed to the ground. Protesters pressed through the gap, where they would soon be met by riot police.

As waves of demonstrations have swept through the region and toppled regimes, Iraq's new government, just two months old, seems to sense danger in the anger of its citizens. This isn't Egypt or Libya, of course; Iraqis aren't staging a revolt against the state so much as telling their democratically elected leaders to get their acts together. Still, there are potentially dire consequences. On Tuesday, I asked a top member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political party, Kamal al-Saidi, whether the protests could fracture the governing coalition, which took nearly a year to assemble. "It depends on Friday," he answered. A large wave of popular anger could potentially cause rival political parties, who have formed an uneasy alliance with Maliki, to withdraw their support -- either in an effort to exploit a moment of political opportunity or in response to the demands of their constituents.

In an informal poll of journalists at Tahrir, we estimated that 6,000 people had showed up -- a relatively small crowd. On Thursday, the two most influential clerics in Iraq had warned their followers that the protests could turn violent and were not worth the risk. The government also did its part to discourage turnout. Over the past few days, plainclothed special ops units bearing the characteristics of the so-called "dirty brigades" -- secret security forces reporting to the prime minister -- have ransacked the offices of protest organizers and NGOs. (Prime Minister Maliki, on the other hand, has cautioned that agents provocateurs might pose as police.) On Thursday afternoon, Maliki gave a televised speech warning that Friday's protests would be infiltrated by Baathists and al-Qaida. That night, the Baghdad Operation Command, which coordinates security in the province, announced it had evidence of terrorist threats. On Friday, the police imposed a vehicle curfew banning all cars, motorcycles, and even bicycles from the roads. If you wanted to go to Tahrir, not only did you have to brave the threat of terrorism, you also had to walk.

Most protesters were much angrier than those I had met at a smaller demonstration in Tahrir Square the week before. "Officials are looking at us as if we are animals," said Hassan Luaibi, 51 and unemployed, who walked to the protest despite a bad leg that injured in a shooting three years ago. "If they want to give freedom to the people, they shouldn't give a curfew, shouldn't block the roads."

Like most of the protesters I spoke with, Luaibi was there to demand employment opportunities, better access to electricity and clean water, and an end to government corruption. "I'm here to protest that the government hasn't provided services to the Iraqi people," said Sabah Mahdami, 28, one of the few women in the crowd. "This is the reason all of us are here." Similar demands have fueled protests around the country, which have intensified and become deadly in recent weeks. On Friday alone, at least 20 people were killed in protests in Fallujah, Kirkuk, Tikrit, and Mosul.

By 12:45, Baghdad's protesters had divided into three crowds. A few thousand were in Tahrir, milling about or marching laps around the traffic circle; one or two thousand remained on the near side of the blast wall; and a few hundred had marched beyond, nearly half way across the bridge toward the Green Zone. Roughy a hundred riot police then trooped into the square, wearing army fatigues and black Kevlar, wielding batons and shields. They pushed onto the bridge, beyond the blast walls and beyond the forward ranks of protesters, and formed a phalanx blocking their path. Reinforced from behind by Iraqi Army soldiers from the Green Zone, they marched toward the crowd, knocking their batons on their shields in rhythmic unison, pressing the protesters back against the blast wall. Eventually, they pounded the protesters past the wall and down the bridge.

Back near the traffic circle, at the foot of the bridge, men began fashioning makeshift weapons. Some grabbed stakes and fence posts; others hoisted large blocks of curb or sidewalk over their heads and smashed them to the ground to make baseball-sized stones. Debris began to fly. As more and more protesters flung concrete at the phalanx, the riot police opened their ranks and a surge of Iraqi Army troops ran through, assault rifles pointed at the crowd. The stone-throwers scattered, and soldiers chased them down side streets. Two large Army helicopters flew low over the square, perhaps 50 meters above the ground, kicking up a whirling cloud of dust. The crowd seemed to take this as a provocation, and turned away from the bridge to shout at the choppers.

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Ben Van Heuvelen is the managing editor of Iraq Oil Report and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.

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