Protesters in Iraq Face Down State Violence

A fleet of three-wheeled taxis makes up the backbone of the anti-government protests in Baghdad. They bring supplies to the front lines and return with the wounded. It is a dangerous game, but one they are determined to win.

By Christoph Reuter


Death threats normally come over the phone, but Abu Tiba’s enemies were unable to reach him. He had lost his phone several days earlier after being shot at while trying to pull a severely injured man from the combat zone. So he received an old-fashioned warning, a note slipped under his door saying they would kill him if he carried on.

Abu Tiba, an imposing man prone to melancholy, just shrugs his tattooed shoulders. “Let them go ahead and try,” he says. The 34-year-old father of three is part of what may be the most unusual group in the mass protests that have shaken Baghdad and other large Iraqi cities in the past month and a half. He’s a tuk-tuk driver, one of thousands in Baghdad’s poor neighborhoods, who transports people through the Iraqi capital on his three-wheeled motorized vehicle.

At least, that’s what they did until October, when hundreds of thousands of people began taking to the streets, first in Baghdad, then in dozens of other cities. Angry at the shameless greed of their leaders, they are protesting against having to live in a corrupt state where the government earns billions on its oil exports while the masses live in poverty.

A leaderless movement, it has nevertheless developed a level of cohesion that was once unthinkable. Young men protest next to young women, students next to the unemployed, civil servants and soldiers in civilian clothes next to mothers, the poor and tribal elders in ornate garb, and fearless nurses next to fully veiled young women wearing yellow construction helmets and gas masks.

And in the middle of them all, the tuk-tuk drivers. There are swarms of them in the squares, in the parks and on the bridges occupied by protesters. They bring injured people from the front lines to the field hospitals in the rear, and then they return with water and concrete blocks for the barricades.

Where the Fearless Stand

Slim, quick to accelerate and extremely maneuverable, the tuk-tuks sometimes speed down the road four abreast. Sometimes they wind through the narrow alleyways, one after the other, evacuating the squares in the blink of an eye as soon as the feared security forces begin firing live rounds into the crowd. Almost two weeks ago, the Iraqi Parliamentary Human Rights Committee said that 319 people had been killed since the beginning of the protests in October, but there are no official numbers. Doctors say that the Health Ministry has ordered state-run hospitals to refrain from sharing information. But almost every day, protesters lose their lives in Baghdad, Kerbala, Basra or Nasiriyah.

But the people are not giving up. Every afternoon in Baghdad, tens of thousands of people gather in Tahrir Square, located in the heart of the city, while the entire district around the square has been transformed into a tent city for the insurgents. The most fearless protesters stand up front, at the concrete barricades, despite the constant deluge of tear-gas cartridges. In the evenings, the crowd begins singing: “Ten die, hundreds die, we keep going for the homeland!” An elderly man has been standing on a box for hours, not even 70 meters (230 feet) from the security forces, and waving a giant Iraqi flag.

“No,” he says in a quiet moment. “I’ve been afraid my whole life, but that’s no way to lead life.” He says he’s not afraid anymore. “They should go ahead and shoot.”

No matter who has been prime minister in the country over the last decade and a half, nothing has been done to stop the gradual disintegration of the state. Every signature in the labyrinthine bureaucracy must be bought, the hospitals have no drugs, university graduates have no jobs and invalids are left uncared for. The families of those who have been in prison for years without trial have to pay for all the medicine and every piece of clothing given to their loved ones.

“It’s not imprisonment, it’s a business plan,” complains the mother of one of the disappeared. There were already protests in Basra back in the summer of 2018 because the tap water was so polluted that thousands of people ended up in the hospital.

“Knights of the Revolution”

“What have our political leaders given us?” asks a young doctor who does not provide his name out of fear. He immediately answers his own question: “Murky religiosity and hate directed at all those who are not Shiite Muslims. They act as if they were God’s chosen ones in order to bleed us dry. We’ve had enough! And we no longer want to be treated like a colony by Iran! We want a unified country for all Iraqis, whether they are Sunnis, Shiites or Christians.”

Ever since the 2003 overthrow of the country’s former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni, the country has been under the control of the Shiite majority and has been dominated both politically and militarily by the neighboring Shiite republic of Iran.

In a certain sense, the tuk-tuks — which come from India and made their first appearance on the streets of Iraq around four or five years ago — symbolize the slow decline of Iraq into developing country status, a place where only the wealthy can afford an air-conditioned vehicle, while the common people ride tuk-tuks. And now, the taxis for the poor have transformed into the “knights of the revolution” — as graffiti on Tahrir Square would have it, accompanied by an image of a winged tuk-tuk. Even the newspaper produced by those who have occupied the square is called Tuk Tuk.

Over the course of just a handful of weeks and in an area measuring several square kilometers, the protesters have been able to create something that the Iraqi government has failed to establish for the country in recent years: a highly organized community in which different committees are in charge of different needs, such as electricity, drinking water, food and toilets. Stewards use ropes to create lanes for the evacuation of the wounded, while in an abandoned highrise — out of which the government snipers were expelled in late October — there are lodgings, a library and a mosque.

If tuk-tuks are the motorized units of the Iraqi October Revolution, as the activists call it, then Abu Tiba is the point of attack. The entirety of his vehicle, aside from the passenger seat, is covered with sheet metal from a scrap merchant. In place of the windshield, which has been shot out, he has built a screen made of wire mesh and the back of a refrigerator. It is perfect for repelling tear gas canisters.

He is in action every night, rattling forward into the noisy blackness for the frontline clashes, which can only be seen from afar because of the green flickering of the protesters’ laser pointers.

“I Had Enough”

Tiba isn’t particularly surprised that he has become the target of death threats. He spent years as a fighter for an Iran-controlled militia conglomerate. Known as “Popular Mobilization Units,” they formed in 2014 in response to the widespread panic created by the expansion of Islamic State. But their status was problematic from the start: Even as they were paid and legitimized by the Iraqi state, they were under Tehran’s control.

It is the members of precisely these masked militias — who wear no identifying emblems — who have been spreading death and terror in the ranks of the demonstrators by shooting into the crowd. “I had enough of it,” says Abu Tiba, saying he decided to switch sides.

Even after several weeks of protest, the government has nothing to offer the demonstrators aside from insults and violence. Soon after the movement started, Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi had the internet shut down across the country. He then claimed that security forces had never opened fire on the marchers, despite the existence of more than 100 dead bodies proving otherwise. Finally, the government promised to refrain from using “deadly weapons.” Since then, however, security forces have taken to firing 40-millimeter tear-gas cartridges, which are far heavier than normal rounds. They tend to aim at the heads and chests of demonstrators instead of in the air.

There are apocalyptic videos in circulation of people dying. They show what happens when someone gets shot in the head at close range by one of the metal cartridges, the tear gas pouring out of their scalps. According to the numbers assembled by several doctors working in hospitals in the city, 31 people were killed in less than two weeks by the tear-gas rounds.

Crossing the Barrier

The state will always have an advantage when it comes to the amount of force it can bring to bear on the demonstrators. But unbeknownst to them, the leaders of Iraq are in the process of losing a different battle, over the meaning of symbols. People are being arrested simply for carrying an Iraqi flag.

The religious myths, the tales of suffering experienced by the Shiite imams in the fight against tyranny some 1,400 years ago — the protesters are adopting and reinterpreting all of that as their own.

Even Prime Minister Abd al-Mahdi’s claim that the young demonstrators are only reenacting the popular online video game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” has been used as fuel for ridiculing the government. Some protesters began dressing up as game characters, wandering through the clouds of tear gas in Baghdad wearing ankle-length robes as self-declared “zombies” — essentially crossing from a fictional world into reality.

Because there are those interested in defending their power and their billions in revenues in this reality, top politicians gathered two weeks ago, along with one of the most important Shiite clerics, to meet the kingmaker of Iraqi governments: Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force and master of the militias in Iraq. He wanted to ensure that everyone was still toeing his line — namely that the protests be brought to an end no matter what.

During the meeting, only Haider al-Abadi, the former prime minister who was ousted last year, clearly expressed his opposition to that approach. The main question, though, will soon be whether the strategy of brutal suppression will actually work. Or whether it will transform the protests into a violent resistance movement.

Abu Tiba, the fearless tuk-tuk driver, believes there is little chance for a reasonable solution. Though for him, the most pressing question of the moment is a different one: namely how to pay the hospital bill for his two-year-old daughter. “I still haven’t even paid off the last three installments for my tuk-tuk, 75,000 dinar,” he says, the equivalent of 570 euros ($ 630). He flashes a helpless smile — and then rattles back to the barricades.

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