BAGHDAD — Several thousand Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad on Sunday, a year after large-scale protests over corruption and a lack of basic services swept Iraq and toppled the government.
In the heart of Baghdad, Iraqis awoke to find blue- and green-clad riot police fanned throughout central squares as concrete barricades blocked the gates to the heavily fortified Green Zone. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had pledged that security forces would avoid the kind of harsh crackdown carried out during the months-long protest movement. More than 500 protesters were killed.
Sunday’s demonstrations began peacefully, but as the afternoon wore on and protesters tried to cross bridges that led to government buildings, small groups of young men hurled Molotov cocktails at security forces as riot police fired tear gas back. Iraq’s Interior Ministry said 42 security personnel were wounded. A Washington Post reporter saw almost a dozen injured protesters.
“This square is for free people,” cried hundreds of young protesters earlier in the day. Many wore the flag of Iraq like a cape and the photograph of a slain protester around their necks.
On a parallel street, a soldier urged demonstrators not to provoke the security forces. “As long as you stay peaceful, you’re our bothers,” he told them.
As midnight approached, Iraqi officials estimated that hundreds of people were still camped out or moving around Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. One government official said a small number of the young men gathered were thought to have links to opposition political parties or armed groups, and had been sent to provoke security forces into a response.
Protesters reported late Sunday that riot police were firing into the air in an attempt to clear a nearby thoroughfare
The October uprising, as it is known here, became one of the largest grassroots movements in Iraq’s modern history as largely young crowds railed first against corruption and a lack of basic services, and later, against the entire system of sectarian politics — all of which have pushed the country to ruin.
But many of the protesters’ grievances have since only worsened. Tanking oil prices in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have left Iraq with an unprecedented liquidity crisis. Iran-backed militias that human rights groups blame for some of the worst violence during the protests last year are more empowered than before. And the United States and Iran have dueled more openly on Iraqi soil than in earlier years.
Protests also occurred in Iraq’s southern cities Sunday, but none on the same scale as in Baghdad. Hundreds of youths had traveled to the capital, to join rallies there, instead of at home.
“Nothing changes in a day, but we showed from our uprising that we can achieve so much,” said Sarmad Mohamed Rasheed, 31, who had traveled from the southern city of Najaf to join Sunday’s protest. “We’re here to fight against corruption. Really, we are here to take back the rights we never had.”
The harsh crackdown against the protest movement caused Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to lose the support of Iraq’s clerical establishment and, ultimately, to step down. Kadhimi, his successor, has vowed justice for the hundreds of families that lost loved ones in the bloodshed.
But in practice, he has achieved little, and many Iraqis see their new premier as weak in the face of vested interests and growing militia power.
Standing near the spot where he had camped out amid the protests until mid-late February, Mohamed al-Khalili, 23, looked at the shrapnel wounds on his forearm that have caused him to lose the use of a finger. “Sometimes I look back and think I lost a lot. My health, my job, my friends,” he said.
From a poster nearby, some of their faces stared back at him.
Khalili had been among the uprising’s most ardent supporters. He was arrested and beaten several times, and when the protests wound down in March, he was among the last to leave.
“We made all those sacrifices, and nothing changed,” Khalili said. “In the history of Iraq now, it’s just another event.”
On the streets surrounding Tahrir Square, the impact of Iraq’s economic crisis was stark. The district had once been vibrant. Now, shopkeepers who had struggled to keep their businesses afloat during the last round of demonstrations were braced for further losses.
Some pulled down their shutters, concerned about tear gas. Others eyed the crowd outside warily.
Mohamed Dawoud, who ran an electronics store, described the past year as a disaster. “I had another shop, but I had to sell it to keep this one afloat. We support four families with these salaries, and look around you, who would come here,” the 57-year-old asked. “We’re caught in the middle. The government doesn’t help us, the protesters don’t understand what they’ve done to us.”
As he spoke, a young woman passed by, carrying Iraq’s flag and chanting. Dawoud cocked an eyebrow as he stared at her.
“Everything’s desperate,” he said. “But can anything change here?”