Iraq's Protests Shook The Government. Now The Movement Is Nearly Crushed

Feb 21, 2020

On the ground floor of the concrete high-rise that became the headquarters of the protest movement in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, slogans scrawled in black and a mural of a fish dressed in a suit disappear under coats of white paint.

The young Iraqis erasing the murals are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite Muslim cleric whose support fueled the largely secular protests against government corruption that broke out last October.

Last month from Iran, where he is pursuing his religious studies, Sadr announced the protests have taken the wrong path and that he was withdrawing his support. Two weeks later, he said the protests needed to be "cleansed."

Sadr's actions have essentially crushed the protests, which have been unprecedented in Iraq's modern history. The largely Shiite protesters have challenged the political status quo established after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 — demanding an end to a system that is divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, is rampant with corruption and is dominated by parties with ties to Iran-backed militias.

Sadr heads a political movement and a militia that fought U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. An important power broker in Iraqi politics, he has had on-and-off ties with Iran that appear to be back on again now. Those ties might be behind his recent move against the protest.

"I think for now the Iranians are probably happy to see how he has changed course the last few weeks," says Iraqi political analyst Sajad Jiyad.

Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drives a car as he joins anti-government demonstrators gathering in the central holy city of Najaf on Oct. 29, 2019.
Haidar Hamdani / AFP via Getty Images

In a series of tweets from Iran, the mercurial cleric criticized the Iraqi demonstrators as immoral, accusing them of promiscuity and calling for segregation of men and women in the protest tents.

He sent in enforcers, who call themselves "blue hats" in imitation of United Nations peacekeepers. The Sadr followers in light blue caps swept through Tahrir Square, searching tents, kicking protesters out of their headquarters and handing some over to Iraqi security forces for arrest.

Iraqi security forces and militia fighters, seemingly given free rein after Sadr withdrew his support, burned tents and stepped up attacks on the demonstrations. Protesters say Sadr militants are also responsible for a wave of stabbings, kidnappings and tent burnings, a charge the Sadr movement denies.

"The revolution and the Iraqi people will thank the blue hats, particularly the people of Baghdad," says Natiq al-Gharawi, one of the Sadr movement's media people, as he stands outside the high-rise, known as the "Turkish restaurant" building, controlling access. "They have eliminated the gangs present in the restaurant and other places and eliminated extortion and mafias."

Signs of defeat

Gharawi says the building — where just a few weeks ago hundreds of protesters were living, teaching informal classes and planning their revolution — is being cleaned up and is expected to be sold to investors.

The high-rise, named after a restaurant located there in the 1990s, had been reduced to its concrete frame in the intervening years. Last year, protesters took it over to prevent militia snipers from using it to shoot at the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

The view in January of the "Turkish restaurant" high-rise building overlooking Baghdad's Tahrir Square, which was taken over by anti-government protesters since demonstrations broke out in October of the previous year.
Sabah Arar / AFP via Getty Images

On the roof, young people dreaming of a more inclusive homeland would wave Iraqi flags at the crowds in the square below. Now Sadr officials have taken over the rooftop sound system.

Instead of the usual cross section of Iraqi protesters — including families and women with their hair uncovered as well as others wearing headscarves — a demonstration called by Sadr on Friday was almost all men. Some carried aloft photos of Sadr and his revered late father.

A tent near the entrance to Tahrir Square blasted a song boasting of kidnapping anyone who displeased the religious leader — a reference to the dark days of Iraq's sectarian war between 2006 and 2008 and Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

A Sadr follower in Tahrir Square holds a photo of the Shiite cleric along with some of his fighters. Sadr has called on followers not to carry his photo, but many do.
Jane Arraf / NPR

"We are alone"

Many of the young people who had been living there have left the square. Those who remain say food and water supplies have been disrupted. In heated meetings in abandoned buildings used as a refuge, protesters argue about the way forward.

Although the unrest led Iraq's prime minister to announce his resignation last November, protesters' demands for dramatic reform look unlikely to be met.

"We are alone," says a college graduate named Ali after one of the recent meetings. "The other side has everything. They have money, they have the militias, they have weapons." He says he thinks the revolution they believed in has been lost. NPR uses only the first names of Iraqi protesters who fear retaliation from security forces and militias if they are identified.

Protesters' helmets on display in Tahrir Square, some with holes where demonstrators were hit by tear gas canisters. The photos above are of protesters who were killed by security forces and militia gunmen.
Jane Arraf / NPR

The anti-government protests began in the southern city of Basra two years ago in the heat of a summer without regular electricity or clean tap water. By October of last year, demonstrations had spread to cities across the south and to Baghdad.

The protesters are mostly young people — the first Iraqi generation to grow up with the Internet and without memories of life under Hussein, Iraq's president from 1979 to 2003.

The protests have also channeled anger against Iran. The neighboring country dominates Iraq's political system and the paramilitaries that form part of Iraqi security forces but are not under full government control. Attacks on Iranian consulates and Iran-backed party offices in Iraq's holy cities of Najaf and Karbala have posed among the biggest challenges to Iran's influence here since 2003. Protesters blame infiltrators settling political scores for those attacks.

Protesters near Baghdad's Khilani Square, where security forces have opened fire on demonstrators trying to block roads.
Jane Arraf / NPR

Firing live rounds

Iraqi security forces have fired live bullets and military-grade tear gas at demonstrators. More than 600 protesters have been killed since October and an estimated 20,000 wounded, activists and hospital officials say. Hundreds of the dead were shot in the head or the chest.

The government has acknowledged at least 400 killed and blamed many of the deaths on "unknown groups" — what the Iran-backed militias are called by officials too fearful to mention them by name. Although the government promised to prosecute those responsible, it has not announced any charges.

Faced with a few protesters throwing homemade gasoline bombs and flinging stones with slingshots, security forces have recently begun firing hunting rifles to keep protesters back from public squares.

Mohammad Harbi, 24, became one of the latest victims last Friday.

"There was a protester who was shot and he was running, but then he collapsed," says Haider, an activist with an Iraqi human rights organization who was near Harbi. He says he and another protester picked him up and took him to a hospital. Harbi died on the way.

He loved his country and he was ready to die for it. - Harbi Hassan, father of a protester who was killed

The victim's father, Harbi Hasan, a retired Communications Ministry employee, says his son left school after ninth grade to work, selling used clothing in downtown Baghdad.

"He loved his country and he was ready to die for it," says Hasan, 70, sitting on an old sofa with torn cushions in the yard near their small house.

The medical report listed his cause of death as a bullet piercing his renal artery.

An Iraqi protester places his national flag on a shrine dedicated to those killed during the unrest, at Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Jan. 29.
Sabah Arar / AFP via Getty Images

Mohammad Harbi composed songs that he uploaded to YouTube. In one of his last videos posted in late January, he sits in a tent with friends and sings about his homeland wounded and the Tigris River running red with blood.

Thousands of other protesters have been kidnapped or arrested. Some others have not left the square for weeks, fearing they would be picked up by police or militias.

On Wednesday, a prominent activist, Ahmed al-Wishah, was taken from a restaurant in central Baghdad by what his brother, Akram, said on Twitter was an unknown group. Akram said Ahmed had been threatened before but refused his family's pleas to stop protesting. Ahmed was freed early Friday.

One protester, Hamza, an unemployed carpenter from Diyala province in eastern Iraq, was arrested in January when he ventured out of the square to see a friend at a restaurant.

"They charged him with terrorism. We tried to help but we can't go to the police station — they will arrest us too and accuse us of being terrorists," says his friend Ahmed. Under Iraq's sweeping anti-terrorism law, being convicted of terrorism carries the death penalty.

Ahmed says Hamza does not have access to a lawyer.

Government and militia officials have portrayed the protests as being fueled by the U.S. to create problems for Iran. Ahmed says any foreigner asking about Hamza at the police station would put him in trouble.

"If you ask about him, they will say the American Embassy is supporting him," he says.

Awad al-Taee and Ahmed Qusay contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.