In Iraq protests, a younger generation finds its voice

March 16, 2011

In recent days, Basaam Abdulrizak, an organizer of the ongoing protests here, has appeared on al-Jazeera and held forth with revolutionaries from Tunisia to Bahrain. Women from Paris have courted the poetry-quoting, Gauloises-smoking activist, who wears his fledgling celebrity a bit awkwardly.

But as he’s taken a central role in the demonstrations, the intense 27-year-old has become ever more eloquent about what he considers the cause of his generation: the idea of Iraq itself.

“What we have passed through is like a dark dream,” said Abdulrizak, referring to the U.S invasion and the sectarian bloodshed that claimed relatives, friends and his own youth. “We believe in Iraq as the primary identity, not sect or religion.”

It would be easy to dismiss such pronouncements as youthful romanticism, and the more cynical do. The demonstrations here, calling for reform, not revolt, have been relatively small. And Iraq is different, the refrain goes: a place fractured along sectarian, tribal and class lines, divisions mirrored in a governing elite that derives its power from them.

But revolts across the Middle East and North Africa have altered conventional wisdom here, too. And the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hardly dismissing its own Facebook generation. Security forces have continued to detain, beat and threaten protesters, and Maliki has branded many with labels they are seeking to escape: agents of partisans and sectarians. All of this has stifled turnout.

In many ways, though, the scale of the demonstrations here is secondary to something more fundamental: the transformation of an obscure band of organizers into young leaders who are defining their own vision of a postwar Iraq.

“The last eight years we faced were really horrible,” said Ali Timimi, 32, an aid worker with the Red Crescent Society. “For the first time, now, we really feel a connection to Iraq. We want to work for Iraq.”

Changing views of U.S.

It was a cool Wednesday afternoon, and Abdulrizak, Timimi and their colleagues were meeting at al-Zora amusement park, a dreamlike vision of green grass and airbrushed carnival rides amid the beige wreckage of Baghdad. They settled at orange plastic tables for hamburgers and Pepsi.

“I’m eating American imperialism!” Timimi joked as he bit into his burger.

There was an air of optimism among the group, mostly middle-class young men in their 20s, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians who were teenagers when the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

“We had rose-colored dreams,” Timimi said.

Abdulrizak recalled helping his father, a teacher, pull down a statue of Hussein in their town, a stronghold of his widely despised Baath Party.

But as the American occupation dragged on, he and his friends developed more complicated views of the United States. They debate these days about whether Iraqis, given the current wave of revolt, would have toppled Hussein themselves. Abdulrizak says yes. Timimi says Hussein’s grip on Iraq was too tight. But the more important point, he said, is that their views were irrelevant.

“We had no choice,” he said of the U.S. invasion. “No one came and took the Iraqis’ opinion.”

Eager for real change

As Iraq slipped into sectarian war, each of the young men became disillusioned in different ways. Timimi, smiling as families strolled by in the park, recalled seeing children playing with corpses in the streets. He looked down.

“Of course, all of that reflected on us,” said Abdulrizak, a freelance journalist. “We could not imagine that someone would be killed because of his identity.”

Though violence has declined significantly, he and his colleagues have remained troubled by the influence of religious parties governing the capital, where social clubs are sometimes closed and alcohol curtailed. They grumble at the number of religious TV channels, many funded by Iran.

So earlier this year, they organized a Facebook group under the banner “Baghdad Won’t Be Kandahar,” a reference to the strict social control that the religiously fundamentalist Taliban exerted over the Afghan city.

They had their first in-person meeting in February. And seeing what their generation was accomplishing in Tunisia and Egypt, they began to see their frustrations in broader terms, as symptoms of a dysfunctional government mired in sectarian politics and corruption.

“Our goal became reform,” Abdulrizak said, naming a long list of complaints that many Iraqis share, from government corruption to unemployment to a dearth of basic services such as electricity and water. “We wanted to tell the government, you have been here eight years and presented us nothing. Our concept of freedom became really big.”

They organized a “Day to Love Your Country” and the nationwide “Day of Rage” on Feb. 25, which drew tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets. Their Facebook group grew from 700 to about 4,000 followers, and an umbrella group they formed, called “February Youth,” now counts more than 10,000 members.

Their message has resonated among secular Iraqis whose most prominent leader, Ayad Allawi, has lost much of his legitimacy after joining Maliki’s coalition government. And though their numbers are relatively small, Abdulrizak said they are significant in a country with little tradition of political protest.

“Two thousand people coming out in Iraq is like 2 million in Egypt, because they have to forget their sect, their religion,” he said. “They’re coming in the name of Iraq.”

The demonstrations appear to have had an effect: Three provincial governors have resigned, the mayor of Baghdad has offered to step down, and Maliki recently gave his cabinet 100 days to improve services. Quietly, some bars have reopened for business in Baghdad.

Speaking for Iraq

Last week, as about 2,000 people gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square for more demonstrations, Abdulrizak stood, microphone in hand.

“Corruption!” he called to the crowd.

“Wrong!” they shouted back.

“One ideology! he called.

“Wrong!” yelled the crowd, which included many people of an older generation. Among them was Mohamed Abdulwahed, 48, who rolled up a shirt sleeve to show purple bruises from when, he said, he was beaten by security forces following recent protests.

This was his third demonstration, which is to say the third in his lifetime. He had a list of frustrations — unemployment, insufficient rations, government corruption — but credited the young people now leading the crowd for helping him to express them.

“They are very patriotic,” he said. “Though they are young, they have seen what has happened to their country.”

Special correspondent Ali Qeis contributed to this report.

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