Newspaper article International New York Times

Friday in Baghdad Becomes Protest Day ; Small Demands Expand into Big Ones as Premier Tries to Resolve Discontent

Newspaper article International New York Times

Friday in Baghdad Becomes Protest Day ; Small Demands Expand into Big Ones as Premier Tries to Resolve Discontent

Article excerpt

The fight against corruption is also a battle against the legacy of the 2003 invasion by the United States, some demonstrators say.

Surrounded by the clamor of protest -- a sea of Iraqi flags, vendors selling coffee and melon drinks, protesters singing the national anthem and railing against politicians -- two friends paused and described the lives of which they dream.

"I want to find a job opportunity," said one of them, Yasir Abdulrahman, 21, who recently earned an engineering degree but remains unemployed. "I want to build a country. I want an opportunity."

His friend Hussein Ali, 22, quit university studies to support his family and now works as a taxi driver. He said that even the specter of bombings -- any public space in this city is fraught with danger -- would not keep him away from the square.

"We are only thinking of reforms," he said. "If you want to change, you have to sacrifice yourself."

For five Fridays now, thousands of Iraqis -- mostly youthful and secular -- have gathered in central Baghdad, at Tahrir Square, to demand change. At first, the demands were small -- improve electricity amid a summer heat wave -- but the list has grown longer and more complex: Fix the judiciary, hold corrupt officials accountable, get religion out of politics.

The protests have come to overshadow the fight against the Islamic State, Iraq's main preoccupation over the past year. Change, at least on paper, came quickly. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a set of sweeping measures to placate the protesters. He called for the elimination of several senior government positions, including the three vice presidencies; the end of sectarian quotas in politics; the reduction of ministries; and a new drive to eliminate corruption.

Several weeks later, few of the measures, aside from the firing of three deputy prime ministers and a few ministers, have been carried out, and many protesters now say they are pessimistic about real change.

"We haven't noticed anything yet," said Ali Farras, 25, who joined the protests on Friday. "It is just ink on paper."

Away from the agitation of the streets are the political intrigues of the Green Zone, the cloistered and fortified enclave here for politicians and ambassadors. There officials say Mr. Abadi may have made promises that will prove impossible to keep, given the entrenched sectarianism and corruption in the political system. In his push for reform, he has failed to consult any of the political blocs, and many worry that Mr. Abadi is making new enemies among the political elite.

"He can make all the directives on earth, but who will implement them?" said one Iraqi lawmaker close to Mr. Abadi who spoke anonymously to avoid angering the prime minister. Yet, if Mr. Abadi succeeds in eliminating sectarian and party quotas from Iraqi politics, the lawmaker said, he would become "a national hero."

The protests -- and the support for them from members of the Shiite religious establishment in the holy city of Najaf, whose word is final for many among the Shiite majority in Iraq -- have provided an opportunity, as well as political cover, for Mr. Abadi to tackle some of the country's most vexing problems.

Since the protests began, Iraqis have noticed a modest improvement in electricity, but not much else.

"Apart from that, he hasn't really changed anything for the people in the street," said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst based in London and Baghdad who sometimes advises the government. "He has to meet people's demands, but he can't go too fast and upset the political elite."

There is also concern that Shiite militia leaders who are close to Iran could exploit the anger in the streets to gain more power. The Shiite militias have become increasingly popular in Iraq because their forces have had success in fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and they have been Mr. Abadi's chief rivals in an intra-Shiite struggle for power. …

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