Anti-Government Demonstrations Are Intensifying In Iraq
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We're going to go to Baghdad now, where anti-government demonstrations are intensifying. Protesters are asking for the overhaul of a political system plagued by corruption, poor government services and a weak economy. The prime minister has been expected to resign for days, but he's resisting that pressure. Meanwhile, security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters and now even on medical workers. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Baghdad.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So can you just first describe what you've been seeing out there?
ARRAF: Yeah. So today was the Friday start of the weekend, and there were tens of thousands of people in the main square, Tahrir Square. There were protesters occupying that and an abandoned high-rise building overlooking the Green Zone. The real frontline, though, is on the bridges that lead to that Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and government offices are. So I was standing in front of a makeshift hospital near one of those bridges. Let's listen to a bit of what that sounded like.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)
ARRAF: So in the space of just a few minutes, six ambulances pulled up. And I spoke to one of the medical volunteers, who didn't want to give his name, but this is what he told me.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Now we know what they want. Yeah. We - they want to kill us to stay in there in the government, stealing, to stay - take everything from Iraq.
ARRAF: He said they want to kill us, to stay in government, to steal everything from Iraq. Strong words, but that's what the protesters believe, and they are indeed being killed.
CHANG: Yeah. Is the government explaining why they're resorting to violence? Had they responded in any other way to the protesters?
ARRAF: This is a really weird thing because security forces are actually saying they're not using lethal weapons. But we've spoken to medical staff at hospitals where some of the wounded have died, and they say these people were killed by live fire. Others have been killed by being hit by tear gas canisters. Today I met the father of a 13-year-old boy who was killed that way. And the prime minister, he has said he would resign, but now he seems to be digging in.
CHANG: I know we can't predict where this is going to end up, but it does seem like the situation is deteriorating. Is that the sense you're getting out there?
ARRAF: It is. The more this goes on and the more deaths there are, the more the protesters are digging in, and it's becoming more and more grim. I sat with doctors and nurses who said they believed security forces were now deliberately targeting medical volunteers, and I also talked to some people who were Iraqi soldiers and militia fighters who have joined the protests. I sat in one room with these guys. They were sitting on mattresses on the floor. They didn't want to give their names, but here's what a couple had to say.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: Dying has become normal for us is what he said. And another, who is a medic with the military on the frontlines of the battle against ISIS who had someone standing next to him killed last week, said, dying is an honor. And that's where we are - more killings, more arrests, disappearances. And the protesters are afraid - really afraid - but still more determined than ever to come out and face these security forces.
CHANG: That is NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad.
Thank you very much, Jane.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.