Baghdad now builds a milestone in anti-government protests

BAGHDAD: Protesters stand for thousands on the open floors of the abandoned building, waving Iraqi flags and cheering. Some sit on the edge, with their feet hanging in the air from the high floors while swinging with loud music.

They have a panoramic view of Baghdad and the tens of thousands of protesters below.

At night, they shake the lights on their mobile phones to comrades on the floor. Then they move inside the building, have dinner together, play dominoes and sing patriotic songs until the early hours of the morning. They can also see security forces fighting protesters.

The 14-story Saddam Hussein era building on the Tigris River has become a milestone in anti-government protests affecting Iraq. The structure has been abandoned since 2003, when it was bombed by US-led forces in its invasion, but protesters have seized security forces since October 25. They have sworn not to leave her.

A one-time mall, the building was nicknamed the Turkish Restaurant due to a famous place to eat on the top floor that was a tourist attraction in the 1980s with panoramic views. Today it is called by other names: Stalingrad Baghdad, Hanging Gardens and Jabal Uhud, a reference to a mountain north of Medina, Saudi Arabia , that was the site of a historic battle between Muslim and Mecca forces.

The building has clear views of Tahrir Square, nearby bridges and home to government offices and western embassies. That makes it a strategic location, and was previously used by security forces and riot police, according to an Iraqi general.

The protesters were very intelligent when they occupied it. Now they can monitor the movements of the security forces and it is difficult to recover due to the crowds, said the general, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. About security measures.

The tower is usually full of young men and women, and has become the embodiment of the free spirit unleashed by unprecedented protests that began on October 1 in Baghdad.

Spontaneous and without leaders, the demonstrations were organized on social networks due to long-standing complaints, including government corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services. They have quickly become the largest grassroots protest movement that Iraq has seen.

Ali Hashim, a 19-year-old former university student in a black T-shirt and with an Iraqi flag, was hanging out with friends on the 12th floor of the building.

I had to suspend my studies because I don't have tuition fees. That's why I'm here, he said.

The protests are not led by any political party. Instead, they point to the political establishment that came to power after the US invasion, which many blame for Iraq's spiral of corruption and poor public services.

The authorities responded strongly, firing real ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas against unarmed protesters from day one. During a first round of demonstrations, gunmen and snipers fired at crowds from the building.

A government investigation found that security forces killed at least 149 protesters and injured more than 5,000. He concluded that most of the dead were shot in the head and chest.

After a three-week break, the demonstrations resumed on October 25, and also the violence, with more than 100 dead.

Far from deterring protesters, repression seems to have energized them.

Tahrir Square, the largest and most central square in Baghdad on the eastern banks of the Tigris, has become the epicenter. Thousands have camped in the circle with their famous and palm trees in the middle. Volunteers transport food and drinks. Students have joined the protests, and celebrities, artists and activists also mix in the square, discussing the future.

Protesters have tried to cross the Jumhouriyya flash points and the Sanak bridges to reach the heavily fortified green zone. They have failed every time the riot police stationed on the bridges faced them with tear gas and stun grenades.

Inside the building, young Iraqis cheer, dance and take selfies. They raise food baskets, water and other supplies, including face masks to use against tear gas. A narrow staircase is packed with people going up and down.

Groups of cheers are found precariously near the edge of the building's roof, some of them wearing yellow glasses. The tear gas fires frequently in its direction.

The building is decorated with posters of the dead, as well as red, white and black giant Iraqi flags and banners that span several floors. One reads: The construction of revolutionaries. Women volunteer to clean up the trash left by the new inhabitants of the building.

Our presence here is also a women's revolution against the corrupt, said Ikhlas Saddam, a 42-year-old fashion designer and volunteer.

We help protesters by providing them with food and cleaning them. We support them despite all the tear gas from the security forces, he said.

Many of the young people say they will not leave until their revolution is complete. I've been here since October 25 and I haven't been home since, said Hashim, the former student. Now is my home.