Few in Iraq disagree that the protesters' grievances are legitimate. Corruption is rife, services are poor, and the economy is weak. But there are no clear, easy fixes. Iraq's reconstruction needs may be even greater than the perceived incompetence of its politicians. According to the Electricity Ministry's plans, for example, Iraq will invest $6 billion this year in its power-generating infrastructure alone, and supply will still not meet demand for at least two years. Until then, people will continue to suffer chronic blackouts. For Iraqis sweating in the desert heat, their air conditioners unable to run, the lack of power is a visceral reminder of their government's failures despite its immense oil wealth.
When I asked protesters what should be done, they were -- like their leaders -- short on solutions. Some demanded new elections, while others insisted the current government should just do a better job. About half of those I spoke with were unemployed and saw little reason to hope for improvement. As evening approached, protesters faced the discouraging prospect of returning home with nothing but their frustrations. A security official stood atop a fire truck with a bullhorn and suggested that the crowd, rather than provoking security forces, should deliver demands to be relayed to the prime minister. The protesters responded with high-pitched whistles of disapproval, and began singing over and over again, "Liar, liar, Nouri al-Maliki."
Next to the bridge, atop the skeleton of a 12-story building that had been partially destroyed years ago by missiles, the chiefs of the Baghdad Operation Command were looking down on the protest. Snipers had maintained positions on rooftops all around the square. The bullhorn appeal to the protesters was also a form of implicit warning: deliver your demands and disperse, or else. Two black riot police trucks -- each resembled a cross between a fire truck and a Bradley fighting vehicle -- took up positions in front of the protesters. They turned on the fire hoses.
The protest had seemed to be dwindling down to the die-hards, but people flocked from across the square to see the waterworks. As the crowd swelled, security forces began to shoot off sound bombs -- special crowd-dispersing rounds that burst above protesters' heads into puffs of white-green smoke and crack the air with ear-splitting bangs. The protesters ran away from the bridge as security forces fired off canisters of tear gas. The sound bombs began exploding lower, among the protesters. Riot police wielding batons and shields gave chase, aiming to clear the square.
Protesters sprinted into the arteries that feed Tahrir. Other police units had set up blockades to prevent the crowd from entering side streets, from which people might head back toward the square. These units fired live rounds into the air from their machine guns, as the riot police continued to pursue. After several blocks, the ranks of protesters began to thin. Some protesters reported being chased for half an hour or longer. Several were bruised and bloodied. In a matter of minutes, Tahrir Square had been cleared.
As I walked home along Abu Nuwas Street, the sun began to set on the Tigris River. In the distance was a suspension bridge, another gateway to the Green Zone, which one of the protesters had referred to in a hand-made sign asking, "When will I be able to cross the 14th of July Bridge?" Children were taking advantage of the vehicle curfew, turning the carless roads into soccer pitches, using broken blocks of concrete curb to mark the goals. Some were even flouting the vehicle ban, riding bicycles. Near a checkpoint, a line of children, all about 10 years old, rehearsed a playful imitation of a protest, linking arms and marching towards the police.
Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty