Failure and Frustration Mar Baghdad's Day of Protest

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


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.

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