Tahrir Square: authorities reclaim the heart of Iraqi protests

Central area of Baghdad reopened to traffic one year after uprising against government

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Iraqi authorities cleared Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Saturday, dismantling tents, removing pictures of dead protesters and sending demonstrators away from the centre of an anti-government uprising that swept the country a year ago.

In an operation led by the army, barricades on the Al Jumhuriyah bridge that became the scene of regular clashes between protesters and security forces were removed.

Tahrir Square and its Freedom Monument were at the heart of a movement that brought hundreds of thousands of Iraqis together, paralysing the capital and southern Iraq for months.

In the square on Saturday, security forces used bulldozers to clear some of the remaining tents. A few days earlier, thousands gathered to mark the anniversary of demonstrations against the corruption of Iraq's political parties and its sectarian system, and to demand jobs and basic services.

“The opening of Al Jumhuriyah bridge and the removal of the tents from Tahrir Square were done in co-ordination with the protesters and there was no tension whatsoever,” said Maj Gen Qais Al Mohammadawi, head of Baghdad Operations Command who was present at the site.

A general view of Tahrir square as Iraqi security forces remove the tents set up on Tahrir square, and reopen the major bridge Jumhuriya, in Baghdad, Iraq October 31, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Al-Mousily

Young people, who led the revolt, mourned nearly 600 dead and supported 30,000 wounded in clashes with security forces, spoke out on social media.

"What the excavators are taking away in Tahrir is not debris, but the history of a people written a year ago in October that is still being written," one person wrote.

The protest movement lost momentum and then ground to a halt in the spring because of an outbreak of tensions between arch-foes the United States and Iran on Iraqi soil and the coronavirus pandemic.

Campaigners also blamed the drop in numbers on violence from Iraqi security forces and militia groups, as well as kidnappings and killings.

With the reopening of the Tahrir roundabout to cars, and the removal of the towering concrete walls used to close off the Al Jumhuriyah bridge across the Tigris River, authorities also brought an end to the protests as a political symbol.

The Al Jumhuriyah bridge leading to the highly fortified Green Zone – where government offices, parliament and the US embassy are housed – was a hotspot.

"The reopening of these places does not mean the revolt is over," said Kamal Jabar, one of the figures of a movement that has become known the October Revolution.

Student demonstrations went on in southern cities but numbers do not compare to 2019.

"The protesters have lost a battle, but the movement endures and is now working to set up political organisations," Mr Jabar told AFP.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who took office in May after the protests forced his predecessor to resign, has promised elections in June, but politicians have said it is very unlikely they will go ahead as planned.

No reforms have yet been proposed, but when they are, they are likely to provoke heated debate in the majority pro-Iran parliament that is increasingly hostile to Mr Al Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the US.

While the prime minister expressed support for the October Revolution, he bade it farewell on Twitter on Saturday, hailing a return to normal life.

"Free and transparent elections are our next step for change, launched by the youth a year ago," he wrote.

"Iraq will never forget its youth."

The protests won popular backing initially but the support waned amid Iraq's worst economic crisis – triggered by anti-coronavirus measures and a fall in oil prices – that has pushed the country's poverty rate from 20 to 40 per cent.

Amid the crisis, public pressure to reopen Tahrir Square and Al Jumhuriyah bridge mounted to ease traffic in Baghdad, a city of 10 million, and to revive trade in the centre of the Arab world's second most populous capital.