In Iraq protests, a younger generation finds its voice

By Stephanie McCrummen
Monday, March 21, 2011; 10:23 AM

BAGHDAD - 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.

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