Iraq News - Local News - Baghdadpost

Highway to hell: how yet another Iraqi protest turned deadly


Directly east of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the Mohammed Al Qassem highway rises over Palestine Street. The monstrous concrete overpass is one of the capital's busiest roads, ferrying traffic north to south, and vice versa.

But on Monday traffic was scarce in the area, save for the Tuk Tuks that have become a fixture of Iraq’s protests over the last three months, the National reported.

In the surrounding streets, young Iraqis break-danced and swigged on cans of drink. The festival-like spirit of people power and community birthed in Tahrir, barely a kilometre to the west of the highway, has spread.

A deadline set by demonstrators in the southern city of Nasiriya for political reform, including the naming of a new prime minister and a new electoral law, passed at midnight on Sunday.

Set a week ago, the demands had soon been adopted by protesters across the country – in Tahrir Square, a clock was erected, counting down the seconds until their wishes should be implemented.

Protesters had vowed to paralyse the country, closing main roads and blocking junctions. For those in Tahrir, the Mohammed Al Qassem highway was their target. Demonstrators had successfully blocked the road over previous nights, using chunks of scrap metal and overturned rubbish bins to create makeshift barricades, before eventually being forced back by plumes of tear gas, and the occasional cracking of gunfire from security forces.

Both on top of and below the expressway on Monday, the party continued. Young men huddled around a fire, others clapped and danced. “You [Iraq] are our homeland, and we want to see you number one again,” sang some.

Others goaded security forces, uniformed, but otherwise just silhouettes perhaps 100 metres away. They tossed glass bottles filled with kerosene, with little accuracy, another man, shirtless, ran towards the forces yelling, “Lil watani” – for my homeland.

Still more brought more scrap metal, shoring up the ill-constructed defences.

“We want to liberate ourselves from the corrupt government, they’ve ruled us for 16 years with no achievements,” said Ali Abbas, 27.

"This is Iraq's best-ever generation because it is the only one fighting for the future, not the present," he added.

Shortly after 9pm, the party was interrupted – at least temporarily. A group of young men bunched together, begging a nearby news photographer to take their picture. As the camera’s shutter clicked, so too did a trigger.

The previously jovial scene instantly turned terrifying, as the crowd ran blindly, following one another to escape the line of fire.

A line of men, seven or eight deep, crouched single file behind an abandoned Tuk Tuk - the only scant protection available on the highway.

Rounds whistled above heads, one sparked as it ricocheted off the asphalt. Hundreds of young men poured down the highway’s two slip roads and to cover under the bridge. Within 30 seconds, it was over. A man dropped his arm around a friend, chuckling, as if to say, “Of course I wasn’t scared, were you?”

A few moments of tranquillity was interrupted by screams in Arabic for an ambulance. A man was carried down the slip road by a crowd of others and passed into a tuk-tuk. He had been hit.

The rattling engine speeds off, its buzzing horn fading off as it hurtled towards an unknown hospital.

That security forces had already opened fire on those on the highway at least twice earlier in the day did not seem to bother protesters. There is bravery among many that can only come from desperation – many believe they have nothing to lose.

At the end of that messy day, at least eight people had been killed across the country – three of them on the Mohammed Al Qassem highway bridge, the Iraqi Red Crescent said.

Even so, the bridge remained a battleground as the sun began to rise on Tuesday.

One of those killed was Yusuf Sattar – a photographer and volunteer medic. The Iraqi Red Crescent said he was hit in the head by live fire.

Videos on social media showed another protester shot in the chest in the city of Karbala. Local activists told The National he had died en route to the hospital. Iraqi authorities claimed that several policemen were injured by rocks thrown by protesters.

Protesters have sworn to continue their escalations until change arrives, yet they are all too aware of the challenges they face. Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr has called for a million-person march on Friday, but many in the Tahrirsay he is attempting to hijack the revolution they have sacrificed much for.

“They won't be welcome here,” says Ahmed.