Iraq’s burgeoning protest movement

Alice Fordham writes:

The only way to get to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square — yes, it has one too — on Feb. 25 was to walk. It was a treat to stride down roads usually solid with traffic, but the silent city also felt ominous. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had warned that the long-planned “Day of Rage” protests would be infiltrated by al Qaeda and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, and imposed a ban on all vehicles within city limits to reduce the risk of car bombs. Religious leaders warned people to stay away, while security officials made doom-laden predictions of violence. Most people were too scared to venture outside.

The hush throughout Baghdad made the clamor in Tahrir Square seem all the louder. Thousands of demonstrators had walked for miles to gather there, not even bothering to go to Friday prayers first. They were mostly men — some university graduates, others day laborers, but all with the same grievances. We have no electricity and no water, scant job opportunities, and our politicians are liars and thieves, they said. They flung themselves against the blast walls blocking the entrance to the Green Zone, a symbol of the distant and unaccountable elite that they were raging against.

The protesters’ banners were homemade and simple in their demands. “The government in the Green Zone is afraid of the people,” said one. “Yes to democracy and public services,” another proclaimed.

Settar al-Sammarai, a soldier with six children who had been retired on a pension of $200 a month when Saddam Hussein’s army was disbanded, said, “I would like my voice to be heard by the government — I would like to be heard condemning the robbery of public funds.”

The Baghdad protests highlight the same frustrations that led Tunisians and Egyptians to topple their autocrats. A generation of Iraqis has grown up with even less control over their lives than youth elsewhere in the Arab world. They went from brutality and scarcity under Saddam Hussein to a U.S.-led liberation they never asked for. Foreign troops patrolled their streets, searched their houses at night, yelled at them in a language they didn’t understand, and, as the WikiLeaked war logs show, killed without good reason. The ensuing chaos placed them at the mercy of Iraq’s fearsome militias. And now, they’re living under a prime minister who is undermining some of the crucial checks and balances that are meant to make the Iraqi government accountable to its people.

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