Iraqis take over Baghdad tower to stop snipers shooting protesters

At protests earlier this month, gunmen shot down at crowds below. This time, protesters say they won’t give them the chance

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Towering above the Baghdad’s Jumhuriya Bridge, the abandoned building known locally as The Turkish Restaurant has clear views across the Green Zone and into Tahrir Square.

Today, the normally drab concrete grey exterior is draped in Iraqi flags. Inside, hundreds of young protesters chant, blow horns and dance to thumping electronic music.

But the building is not only a site of giddy energy, it plays a key strategic role and protesters have sworn to lay down their lives if needed to prevent the police from removing them.

“They [security forces] want to enter the Turkish Restaurant because if they do, then all of the protests will fail,” said Mohamed Al Qaisy, a 25-year-old engineering student. “They will be able to control Tahrir square… So even if we die we won't come down from here.”

Between October 1 and October 9, security forces killed at least 149 and injured over 5,000 as mass protests erupted in Baghdad.

A government investigation found that 70 per cent of those killed shot with live ammunition.

Video footage of the rallies shows snipers shooting from rooftops on demonstrators in Tahrir square. Many on the streets say that the snipers took up positions in the upper floors of the Turkish Restaurant. Iranian backed Iraqi militias have been blamed for sending the snipers, but the military too has admitted using excessive force.

“If they take the Turkish Restaurant they will put inside of it snipers and kill us and destroy the protests,” explained Mr Al Qaisy.

For this reason, the protesters have taken the building and are vowing not to give it up.

“I was here,” recalled Muazen Rasool, 30-year-old and unemployed from Baghdad’s suburbs. “They hit us with smoke [grenades] and with live bullets from this building. They were here, they were aiming at the square, they would not allow anyone to cross the square,” he said of the protests at the beginning of the month.

The protests paused briefly during the holy Shia pilgrimage of Arbayeen, and since then security forces in Baghdad have not widely used live ammunition on protesters.

But Mr Rasool said that protesters learned from the events in early October and will not give the security forces a vantage point to attack the square.

“We had this idea before we went out [to protest]. It's better that we go here than [let] the security forces who will kill the protesters. So we gathered here and will continue in this building, God willing.”

Mr Rasool says he’s slept for the last six days on a damp red blanket in the corner of one of the building’s top floors. He said that the building has been targeted several times by security forces who shoot tear gas and stun grenades into the open floors.

Regardless of the conditions, he grinned widely as he insisted he was determined to stay inside the Turkish Restaurant until the protesters get their demands.

“We're not afraid. Iraqis are not afraid, we're brave,” he said. “We want a true change, we want an independent government that does not follow the parties and that does not follow its neighbouring countries... I will stay here until the government changes.”

Yaser Mohsen, 23, who is also unemployed, has made the building his temporary home.

As he dashed up and down the floors, he threw out greetings to protesters he’d met over the past few days. “I slept here from last night. There's a lot of danger for us,” he said, explaining that they often get targeted by the security forces.

“The protesters are young. I want a future for the young people. They don't have the chance to get married, they don't have anything,” he said.

Demonstrators and tuk-tuk drivers take part in an anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Demonstrators and tuk-tuk drivers take part in an anti-government protests in Baghdad. Reuters

Mr Mohsen has been able to camp out in the building because of a grassroots system of support that has bloomed for the young protesters inside the Turkish Restaurant.

“I come here every day with food,” said a 20-year-old protester, who declined to give his name, as he carried a cardboard box full of sandwiches. “I've been coming here for three days. I come here for my nation and for my rights.”

He is not alone in the effort.

Next to enormous Iraqi flag stretching from the top floor of the building to the garage at the base, a rope on a pulley lifts plastic baskets full of supplies to the protesters occupying the building. Closer to the ground floor, a man stood in front of a stack of boxes full of water, food, cakes and face masks to protect against tear gas.

One man handed out ice-cream to the eager young protesters. “There are many who bring us food,” said Mr Mohsen.

Many of those inside the building are under 30, part of the wave of youth that has filled Baghdad’s streets as they demand better education, work opportunities and an end to corruption.

Around 60 per cent of Iraq’s 40-million population are under the age of 25, while youth unemployment stands at 25 per cent. One in five people in Iraq live under the poverty line, despite Iraq’s immense oil wealth.

“My brother was injured there and he's now in the hospital and everything I'm doing is for him,” said Hassan, 14, whose wide eyes peered out behind goggles he wore to protect himself from tear gas.

He said that when he is not in the Turkish Restaurant he is down on Jumhuriya Bridge, joining the protesters attempting to cross into the Green Zone. “I want rights for brother. He's an engineer and he does not have my work.”

The nearby Jumhuriya Bridge has become a flashpoint for violence in the protests: security forces stationed behind concrete t-walls on the bridge fire tear gas directly onto the protesters.

Those inside the Turkish Restaurant observe, video and catalogue as much as possible.

“I've seen ten martyrs on the bridge,” said Mr Mohsen. “They target us with tear gas in our heads, with smoke, everything can happen even though they only carry the Iraqi flag. They face the tear gas and sound grenades and they explode their heads.”