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Thousands rally in Iraq to mark one year since mass protests

Protesters return to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a year after the beginning of mass demonstrations, saying their work is not yet complete

Anti-government protesters gather on the closed Joumhouriya Bridge that leads to the Green Zone government areas in Baghdad, Iraq, October 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Anti-government protesters gather on the closed Joumhouriya Bridge that leads to the Green Zone government areas in Baghdad, Iraq, October 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Thousands of protesters took to the streets on Sunday to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations swept Baghdad and Iraq’s south, sparking hope for change and calls for an end to rampant corruption.

Protesters marched in the capital and several southern cities including Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra to renew demands proclaimed a year ago to bring an end to corruption by politicians.

Mustafa Hussein, in his 20s, participated in the demonstrations last year and returned to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Sunday. He said little had changed.

“Our demands that we wrote with the blood of our martyrs are still on the lists of officials without implementation,” he said.

More than 500 people were killed during the months-long movement that began last year, many of them protesters shot by Iraqi security forces who used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds. Tear gas canisters often struck the heads of demonstrators, killing them instantly.

By February, the protests had petered out in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, prompting activists to call off mass marches and sit-ins.

An order by the Baghdad Operations Command, which oversees security forces in the capital, kept many hundreds more demonstrators from entering the city on Sunday from the provinces of Babylon and Diwanieh.

An aerial view shows Iraqi protesters gathering at Baghdad’s Tahrir square near al-Jumhuriya bridge which leads to the high-security Green Zone across the Tigris River, during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in the Iraqi capital on November 2, 2019. (AFP)

In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which has been the epicenter of the protest movement, Iraqi youth carried banners with portraits of those killed by Iraqi security forces. The protesters erected tents and set up food stalls, movie screens and bookshops.

“Today we mark the memory of the October Revolution, especially those fallen,” said Fadel Ahmed, 25, a graduate of economics. “Our demands are against corrupt parties in power and against the failed parliament.”

In October of last year, tens of thousands of Iraqis – mostly youth – marched in Baghdad and cities in the south to decry government graft, unemployment and poor services. Demonstrators took over public squares in Baghdad and camped out for months, refusing to leave until their demands were met.

The movement had early successes. Pressure from demonstrators led to the resignation of Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government. Mustafa al-Kadhimi assumed the premiership after months of political deadlock and after two previous candidates failed to garner enough support among elites.

Al-Kadhimi has presented himself a champion of the protesters’ demands, appointing long-time activists among his close group of advisers. He promised that early elections, a key demand of protesters, would be held next June.

Despite crackdowns from militias and the government, protesters say their movement is still alive.

“We have only this revolution to achieve our goals,” Ahmed said. “If it can’t, Iraq will be lost.”

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