BAGHDAD -- For some, it was their first glimpse of the center of their capital, and on Sunday a 24-hour sit-in inside Baghdad’s Green Zone by protesters demanding reform turned into something of a sightseeing tour.
The four-square-mile fortified area, home to ministries, government buildings and embassies, has been closed to the public since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In it are some of the city’s major landmarks, surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens.
After supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr breached its boundaries by bursting into parliament on Saturday, Iraqis were allowed to go in and out on Sunday without having the normally required passes.
They stopped to snap selfies under the giant crossed swords that form the Hands of Victory monument, built by Saddam Hussein in commemoration of the Iran-Iraq war. Two young boys took pictures of each other next to bushes of white flowers.
“It’s very different to outside,” said 11-year-old Mohammed Qassim, as he sat with his father and a group of demonstrators in the shade of a tree.
“It’s so clean,” he marveled. The Green Zone has been off-limits all his life.
Sadr draws much of his support from Baghdad’s urban poor, particularly those living in Sadr City, which is named after his father. The sprawling area of northeastern Baghdad is prone to chronic power cuts. Its squat buildings are decaying, and wires crisscross the streets.
Abbas Jabbar Halachi, 40, showed photos of what it looked like after he had stormed into parliament. He was lying down on the floor, his hands under his head, grinning.
“I lay down and took a rest because it was the first time we’ve felt this kind of air-conditioning,” he said. “The cold air was everywhere, coming from all directions.”
As he spoke, other demonstrators splashed in an ornamental fountain behind him, topped by a statue of an Iraqi soldier. They dived and back-flipped into the water, cooling off as temperatures pushed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mohammed Aladdin, 25, wasn’t involved in the protests, but he came on Sunday anyway, bringing along his selfie stick.
“I just came to see all the places that I haven’t seen before,” he said at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, which was designed by Italian architect Marcello D'Olivo. Its tilted saucer-like shape supposedly represents the shield of a fallen Iraqi fighter.
He was snapping pictures of its flagpole, covered entirely in Murano glass in the colors of the Iraqi flag. Though the excursion was fleeting — at least for now — with protesters withdrawing on Sunday, Aladdin said he enjoyed the trip.
“The protesters don’t even know what they want,” he said. “Still it’s a beautiful experience to be able to come here.”