Anti-Government Protests Continue Across Iraq

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 25, 2019 7:09 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Anti-government protests have swept across Iraq today. In the south, demonstrators have clashed with Iranian-backed militias. In Baghdad, at least seven people have died and hundreds more have been wounded. NPR's Jane Arraf was at that protest in Baghdad and brings us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND BOMB EXPLODING)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Riot police fired sound bombs to try to drive protesters away from the route to the Green Zone, home to government ministries and the American embassy. And then they fired tear gas. Clouds of it wafted over the bridge where protesters pushed forward and into Tahrir Square where demonstrators were gathering.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND BOMB EXPLODING)

ARRAF: So they've just used tear gas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Everyone's gasping. A security officer has just given me a plastic rose.

This were new security forces on their best behavior. Almost 150 people were killed in demonstrations over the last few months, many of them shot in the head or the chest by security forces. The Iraqi government made a point of saying security forces today did not carry lethal weapons. But protesters still died, many of them hit by tear gas canisters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "He was on the bridge, and he was hit in the head. I took him to the ambulance. He died," says one of the protesters who is transporting the wounded. The back of his vehicle is pooled with blood. One man holds part of a spent gas canister. Another holds up an Iraqi flag stained with blood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He says, we have only this flag. You see? We don't have any weapons.

Nearby, a group of young men kick and tear at a corrugated metal fence around an abandoned building until it comes off in pieces.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Ali, who does not want to give his last name, has torn off a strip and tied it to his back as a shield. He says they're protecting themselves from shrapnel from the sound bombs. The demonstrators are almost all young men. Many say they're not part of any organization or party. Emran Maleed (ph) works as a laborer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND BOMB EXPLODING)

EMRAN MALEED: (Through interpreter) The government's idea is we are traitors or American embassy agents. The Americans brought democracy and freedom. Our government is only gangs and thieves. This protest was started by young people, civilians.

ARRAF: They want jobs, but they want something else much bigger and less tangible. Ahmed Azeez (ph) stands on crutches. He lost a leg fighting ISIS with the Iraqi Army three years ago.

AHMED AZEEZ: (Through interpreter) I came here today because I want my homeland back, not to demand electricity or clean water. The youngest child in the street knows these people are looters. They came to steal the citizens' money.

ARRAF: In spite of or maybe because of Iran's role in Iraqi security politics and economy, a lot of these protesters make clear they want Iran to butt out of Iraqi affairs. In fact, some protesters tell me they consider the Iraqi government an Iranian one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

ARRAF: And then a huge cheer goes up.

All of this cheering is because they've just hoisted a giant flag on top of a huge building. They're rushing towards the bridge and they're chanting, with our blood and souls, we sacrifice for you, Iraq. It's a traditional chant, but today to these people here, it signifies that they believe they're the real Iraq.

It's a lot for Iraq's prime minister to grapple with. He's promised government jobs, a cabinet shuffle and a special court to try corrupt politicians. But protesters say they want much deeper change. They're willing to risk dying to demand a government they feel they can trust.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.