The street fight for Iraq’s future

Young men have been dying every week. Now, fears of a final confrontation are spiking.

Youthful Iraqi protesters have spent four months in the streets, demanding an end to a political system that has thwarted their dreams for the future and urging that Iraq be freed from Iranian and American meddling. Already, the demonstrators have forced the prime minister’s resignation and have won moderate electoral reform. But those gains have been steeped in blood. Security forces have killed more than 500 protesters. The movement’s ranks had been bolstered by supporters of influential Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In a fateful U-turn, however, he turned his back on the movement last weekend, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation.

Protesters head toward Tahrir Square in Baghdad to join the clashes with Iraqi security forces, which erupted last Saturday after Sadr withdrew his backing for the demonstration.

Protesters flee as security forces fire tear gas and the sound of bullets crackles down the street.

This browser does not support the video element.

As clashes break out, a man shutters his storefront.

In Tahrir Square, tents lay abandoned after Sadr's supporters departed during the night, following his withdrawal of backing for the demonstrations.

For months leading up to last weekend, Haider Sabah had beamed Iraq’s protests to the world, filming the uprising around Tahrir Square and broadcasting a live stream at night. Like many activists, he’s received threats from Iran-backed militias allied with the government. “The revolution made me realize that I love Iraq more than I expected,” he says. “If the situation remains the same, then my children will have a tragic life.”

This browser does not support the video element.

Leading into last weekend, Sabah finds safety at a relative's home in Sadr City after he says militiamen tried to abduct him from his house.

Sabah waves goodbye to his nephews as he heads back to Tahrir Square, fearing what might follow.

His tent has become a news hub. When protests take place or clashes begin, his team rushes into the thick of it.

Just across Sadr City district, Haitham Mizyad was preparing for a different protest. This one was called by Sadr, who was urging the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq. The cleric was busing in supporters from across the country. Iraqi militias were backing Sadr’s “million-strong” march, prompting accusations from anti-government activists that Sadr was preparing to turn against them. Mizyad says he had initially seen Americans as liberators during the 2003 war, but then “they acted like occupiers.”

In Sadr City, Mizyad, right, visits with his relatives as they get ready for the march.

This browser does not support the video element.

Mizyad’s relatives prepare protest signs rejecting the existing political parties.

Sadr’s march on Friday Jan. 24 attracts supporters from across Iraq. Seen from above, the streets around Baghdad’s Hurriyah Square are a sea of black, white and red, with protesters clutching Iraqi flags and wearing shrouds around their shoulders. Voices projected by loudspeakers denounce U.S. troops as occupiers. Posters depict President Trump hanging from a noose. Militia supporters keep a low profile, easing fears of violence.

About 200,000 people join the Sadr march as anti-American chants and anthems blare through the air. “Out, America, out,” they chant.

Participants hold Iraqi flags in a show of nationalism, urging the expulsion of American forces — “the occupiers” — from Iraq.

The march takes place amid tight security and is kept away from the separate anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.

This browser does not support the video element.

This browser does not support the video element.

“Iraq showed them today that they are not welcome, and they should respect that if they really respect democracy,” Mizyad says.

Men and women who have traveled from across the country disperse when the march ends without major incident.

But the crowd in Tahrir Square was uneasy because of the rival protest. Fearing violence, some of the anti-government protesters had stayed home that morning. Others wondered what Sadr would do next. On the nearby Mohammed al-Qassim highway, a young crowd burned tires. Shortly after Washington Post reporters left the scene, security forces opened fire. And then came the announcement: Sadr had withdrawn his support for the protesters in Tahrir Square.

After the announcement, one of the protesters’ most iconic strongholds - known as the Turkish restaurant - empties out, as many of Sadr’s supporters pack up and leave.

On Mohammed al-Qassim highway, protesters throw molotov cocktails as security forces respond with tear gas and live bullets.

More than 500 protesters have been killed in recent months. Their faces stare out from across Tahrir Square.

Sadr’s abrupt withdrawal of support has an immediate impact. Once Sadr’s loyalists leave the protest camps across Baghdad and southern Iraq, riot police begin their assault early on Saturday, Jan. 25 setting fire to protest tents. Near Tahrir Square, security forces also fire into the crowds, and nine people are killed. Fear ripples through the square.

But then something perhaps surprising happens: In defiance, many more people stream into the square to join the protesters, sometimes for the first time. They vow to keep the cause alive.

In Tahrir Square, protesters ready shields and molotov cocktails for anticipated clashes. Others nurse their wounds.

On a street adjoining the square, clashes have started.

This browser does not support the video element.

This browser does not support the video element.

A burned tent on a street leading to Tahrir Square. Within hours, the debris would be swept away, and new tents would spring up.

As those at the anti-government protest camp wake up on Sunday, the mood is lighter, though the resolve of many has hardened. Sabah is still in his tent, broadcasting the events. In a warren of tents on the edge of Tahrir Square, activists say that the stakes were higher than ever. “I came here saying that I’d be willing to die for my country, and that’s truer than ever now,” says Yasser, a young medical student. “We’ve seen what they do to people who ask for change now. There’s no going back.”

Amid lighter spirits, protesters feed puppies they’ve come to look after on the edge of Tahrir Square.

Even as protesters call for an end to U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, they urge the United Nations to intervene.

Sabah remains wary and worried about what might happen next. But his live stream is back on.

The future of the months-long protest movement is uncertain. Since Sunday, at least 13 people more people have been killed, reportedly by security forces, and scores more have been wounded. Iraq’s political elites have rallied, closing ranks in the face of an anti-establishment protest movement that initially took them by surprise. Crowds are holding out in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. But an increasing proportion of the young demonstrators are now scared to leave their camps, fearing they could be abducted or arrested.

They fear a final crackdown.