An unprecedented lockdown of Iraq's capital failed to deter thousands of Iraqis from protesting today, serving notice that the antigovernment rage sweeping the Arab world will not be easily extinguished here.
The "day of rage" protests rocked other Iraqi cities as well, as demonstrators burned or tried to storm government buildings from the southern port of Basra to the northern cities of Mosul and Huwaijah, where at least five protesters were shot dead by security forces.
The Iraqi government on Thursday gave Baghdad residents only a half-hour’s warning that, starting at midnight, vehicles would be banned from the roads until further notice. Despite the measure, demonstrators walked for hours today to reach Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Police estimated a turnout of up to 4,000 people. Eight years since Saddam Hussein was toppled, many Iraqis say their lives are still almost as difficult now as they were then.
Baghdad’s international airport was also shut down, and the fortress-like green zone, a mini-city housing the Iraqi government and the huge US embassy, was further sealed off with new concrete barriers. The moves followed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's warnings that protests would be infiltrated by Saddam Hussein loyalists and targeted by Al Qaeda suicide bombers.
There were no bombs or shootings but Jumhuriya Bridge, the main access point to the green zone, became a battleground in Friday’s demonstration when protestors tried to breach newly installed concrete barriers.
Protesters want jobs, better social services
Despite government attempts to portray the demonstration as politically motivated, many of the young men who raged against Mr. Maliki had much more basic reasons, complaining of a lack of jobs and public services and of the perception that in a country listed as among the world’s most corrupt, officials are stealing the wealth.
“I’m a laborer. I work one day and stay at home for a month,” says Oday Kareem, part of a group screaming that the prime minister was a liar. “He said people will do better than they did under Saddam Hussein – where is it?’
A small group of young men began to hurl stones, sticks, and even shoes – a major insult in the Arab world – at riot police arrayed in front of the blast barriers near the foot of the bridge. More police with batons and plastic shields were deployed to beat them back.
The melee started a near stampede with people almost crushed against the walls as the police surged forward, wielding their batons to chase the protestors off the bridge. Iraqi Army helicopters stirred up clouds of dust while senior Iraqi officers and officials watched the protest unfold from the shell of a high-rise building nearby.
'If this were in Saddam's time'
Amid the chaos, there were touching scenes of many demonstrators trying to prevent others from throwing stones – one of them wrapping his arms around another young man to keep him from hurling a rock. Many of the organizers have gone to great lengths to try to ensure the protests remain peaceful and independent of political parties.
Security appeared under orders not to use live fire or rubber bullets to subdue the crowd. “If this were in Saddam’s time, every one of those demonstrators would have been shot dead,” says a police spokesman.
Some of the protesters said Maliki’s comments that Baathists and Saddam loyalists were behind the demonstrations had prompted them to come out.
“None of us are Baathists – we were all oppressed by Saddam,” says Yanar Mohammad, the director of a women’s rights organization, adding they would continue to try to tear down the walls of the green zone. “This is a historic day.”