More than three months after they began, protests in Iraq have escalated and taken a new turn this week. Anti-government demonstrators are attempting to force drastic change in a country whose government is in turmoil and grappling with a crisis between Iran and the United States.
Tactics such as blocking highways and forcing the closure of government offices have now set the protest movement, which began in early October, on a more dangerous collision course with security forces. Although most of the focus has been on Baghdad, some of the fiercest demonstrations have taken place in cities further south.
Protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah had set a deadline of midnight Sunday for the government to announce a new Iraqi prime minister. When that deadline passed with no announcement, they called for a general strike. In response, protesters from Baghdad to the southern port city of Basra blocked highways with burning tires. In some cities, they welded the doors of government buildings shut, to prevent employees from going to work.
"The deadline was announced and the deadline was over. We mobilized and escalated to cut the highway," a woman in a white lab coat told NPR in Baghdad on Monday, as she ran from tear gas fired by security forces after protesters took over a main interchange.
"Don't think we will stop. Enough. We are fed up with everything. We can't keep silent," said the woman, a volunteer medic who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals from security forces and militias. "We are not going to leave and we are not going to emigrate and we are not going to go back to our houses. We are staying here."
Thousands of protesters turn out every day, with hundreds of them living in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the center of the anti-government demonstrations. They say they fear being kidnapped or killed in the street by Iran-backed militias if they leave. They've set up tents. Volunteers organize meals. There are doctors and dentists within the square.
"The Iranian forces are attacking us," says Ali, who does not want to give his full name for fear of reprisals. He is part of a group picking up live tear gas canisters with their bare hands to hurl back at security forces. He is shirtless and wearing plastic sandals, with black soot covering his chest and hands.
"What else does Iran and its parties want from us?" he asks, referring to Iran's grip over Iraq's security forces and political system. Some of the most powerful parties have paramilitary wings backed by Iran.
As he speaks, a three-wheeled tuk-tuk races by, carrying an injured protester. A group of teenagers drag a metal dumpster along the pavement to use as a shield against the bullets and tear gas.
Iran-backed Iraqi militias — many of them officially part of Iraqi security forces — are believed responsible for hundreds of protesters' deaths and dozens of killings in the streets. Regular Iraqi security forces have fired live bullets or tear gas canisters directly at unarmed protesters.
The Iran-backed militias have become increasingly active in Iraq, against a backdrop of recent tensions between Washington and Tehran that include the U.S. killing of top Iranian and Iraqi commanders and Iran's missile strike on an airbase housing U.S. forces. With the deaths of the Iranian and Iraqi commanders, some analysts believe militias are less likely to answer to a central command and their response to the protests will become more unpredictable.
The vast majority of protesters are unarmed, but a small and growing number have begun throwing Molotov cocktails — homemade gasoline bombs — at security forces, a previously rare tactic.
"They are attacking us with live bullets and tear gas, so this is why we are using these," says Mohammad, who refuses to give his last name. He and five other young men are wearing tactical vests, each pocket holding a glass soda bottle or liquor bottle containing gasoline and a homemade fuse.
Iraqi riot police deployed at the protests are outfitted in body armor, helmets and protective shields. Mohammad, who sold spare parts for cars and machine tools before he started joining the protests, said the aim is not to hurt security forces, but to create a barrier they will not cross.
"We are doing this to keep the army away from Tahrir Square so people can protest peacefully," he says. "We are going to be human shields. We want to keep the educated people — the doctors and engineers — safe."
One of the protest organizers, Kamal Jabar, said he has advised young people taking part not to throw gasoline bombs. He says it is hurting their cause.
"I lost this argument," he says. "I cannot keep telling tell them, 'Go – God will protect you.' God is not protecting us."
Two days later, the protesters were still controlling the interchange — but at a cost. Three were killed Monday near the highway, one shot in the head. A fourth person was killed on Tuesday.
A video posted by activists on social media showed security forces on an overpass above the highway on Monday, some firing directly into the crowd.
The Iraqi government, facing intense criticism over the deaths of an estimated 600 protesters since October, pledged in November to deploy riot police without lethal weapons. It has mostly blamed "unknown groups" – a euphemism for militias on the government payroll but not under government control – for the killings.
While the protesters have no central leadership, they have emerged as a force in Iraq's turbulent politics, demanding an end to a political system divided along sectarian lines and dominated by notoriously corrupt parties, many tied to Iran and having their own militias.
Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who took power last year with the support of both Iran and the United States, submitted his resignation in November, part of the fallout from the protests. But protesters have rejected new prime ministerial candidates — signaling their disapproval by unfurling giant banners with an X over the candidates' faces — and it's unknown when a new prime minister will be named. Abdul-Mahdi remains in a caretaker position for now.
Laith Kubba, a former advisor to Abdul-Mahdi, said the unprecedented protests have made it impossible for Iraqi politics to return to the status quo, in which corruption is rampant and government ministries are divided between political parties along sectarian and ethnic lines.
He warns that those who are attacking protesters are a threat to the entire country.
"It reminds me of the early days when Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party came to power and they started building a repressive machine," he says. "If it's not halted now, it will become a monster."