Protests In Iraq Continue Despite Curfew, Internet Blackout And Deaths
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Iraq erupted this week with some of the biggest, most widespread protests in years. They seemed to start spontaneously over joblessness and corruption.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIANCE)
KELLY: You can hear the violence escalating there as Iraqi security forces came in and clashed with protesters in the streets. Dozens of people have been killed. Hundreds more have been injured. Well, to understand more about what is going on, we are joined now by Imran Khan. He's in Baghdad, and he is senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English. Imran Khan, welcome.
IMRAN KHAN: Thank you.
KELLY: So I said these protests seemed to start spontaneously. Is that true? What are the conditions there that have people so angry?
KHAN: Well, what happened on Tuesday was very interesting. During the day on Tuesday, there was a very small protest. They were in the middle of central Baghdad in Tahrir Square. They were very quickly dispersed by the Iraqi security forces, but then a call went out on social media from people's individual accounts to say, let's go back to the square at 3 o'clock. And the numbers surprised everybody. There were thousands of people in the square who reacted to that, and they all had one real message to the government. That was to end corruption and provide jobs and opportunity.
The government were completely surprised by this, and they sent in the Iraqi army and the police with very heavy-handed tactics. They used live fire. They used tear gas. They used rubber-coated steel bullets. Now, there were a number of deaths that day, and then the protests spread to other parts of the country.
So whatever had happened, it struck a chord with very young people. Now, the median age of the protesters, as far as I can work out, is about 20 years old. These are people who don't remember Saddam Hussein, who, you know, barely remember the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. What they do remember is the last 10 years and the opportunities that have not been given to them.
KELLY: And as you have been moving around the streets, reporting, trying to talk to them, what specifically do they tell you that they want?
KHAN: They still want the same things they wanted on Tuesday, but because of the heavy-handed security tactics, they're also now saying that they want the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces to stop firing on them. What they - overwhelmingly, what you hear is, we are Iraqi. We are the people of this country. Why are you firing at us? We have a right to protest.
KELLY: And what is the scene tonight? This is Friday. This is typically a day of rest in Iraq. Is - are the streets quiet right now?
KHAN: Well, the curfew has now been in place, you know, almost 36 hours. There are checkpoints every 300 meters. One of my Iraqi friends actually turned around to me and said, this feels like it was during the height of the invasion and the occupation of Iraq in...
KHAN: ...2003, 2004. It feels like, with so many soldiers out on the street, all that's changed is that the uniforms have changed. It's not American anymore. It's Iraqi.
KELLY: Impossible to know where this might go next, of course, but in terms of the strategy that may be emerging among protesters, can you tell whether these seem organized? Are there leaders who are calling the direction of where things may go next?
KHAN: A lot of these young kids aren't part of any religious party. They're not part of any political party. They're just ordinary Iraqis from all parts of the country, so therefore, they're not listening to the religious leaders like perhaps an older generation might do, and they're not listening to the politicians because clearly, they've lost faith in them. So you have to wonder where this goes, whether the protesters will eventually get organized and leaders will emerge, but right now, there's not really anybody that you can negotiate with. And they're defying the curfew. They're still out in the streets in Baghdad, and they're still being shot at.
KELLY: Imran Khan of Al Jazeera English. We caught him tonight in Baghdad. Thanks very much for your reporting.
KHAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.