BAGHDAD/KARBALA/IRBIL/MOSUL - When the tear gas clears, and the chants and shouting become quiet, a bit of despair sometimes filters through protest camps occupying Iraq's city centers.

"At the beginning, more families came to the protests," said Ali Khafaji, 30, a volunteer medic and protester in Karbala, a sacred city to Shia Muslims about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.

"But since the violence began, it is mostly just young men. People are disappointed."

They are disappointed, he told us, because four months of calls for accountable government, equitable resource distribution and basic services like electricity, health care and education, have led to almost no change.  

Ali Khafaji, center, a volunteer medic and protester, says demonstrations in Karbala, Iraq, will continue regardless of violent attempts to shut them down, Jan. 25, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Their only option now, he says, is to keep protesting until their demands are met or they are forced out with violence. The deaths of protesters — roughly 600 counted so far — have yet to be investigated.

"They can burn our tents, and we will put up new ones," Khafaji said.
Hopes from a distance

In far-off Iraqi cities, young people of different religions and ethnicities also have pinned their hopes on these protests. Called the "largest anti-establishment movement" in Iraq's history, youth all over the country say they are rooting for the protesters fighting for what they say every Iraqi should already have.

Abdulrahman, left, and his friend Ali say they agree with the protesters' demands but the streets of Mosul, Iraq, are too volatile to stage protests, Jan. 29, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

"When I went to the protests, I saw a future," said Abdulrahman, a 22-year-old engineering student in Mosul, who joined the protesters in Baghdad for three days last fall, as he and his friend, Ali, sat at a table studying for exams in a Mosul cafe.

Mosul is in the north of Iraq and Islamic State militants ruled the city with brutal violence only a few years ago. The militants' rule in Mosul ended in a bloody nine-month-long war, and much of the city is still in rubble.

"I felt proud to be Iraqi for the first time in my life," Abdulrahman said. "Our capital is full of militias and corruption. Whatever happens next cannot be worse."

Since the protests began in October, many businesses in Iraq have grown poorer as people squirrel away money in case disaster strikes. Fears of renewed violence or government collapse are at the forefront of many people's minds.

"Business is down because people are afraid," said Hazem, 24, a waiter at the Mosul cafe. "Not just here, but everywhere."
But Hazem and other young men at the Mosul cafe support the demonstrations, despite the hardship, saying protesters are fighting and dying for all Iraqis.  

A wall in a Mosul, Iraq, cultural center features pictures of protesters who died in clashes on Jan. 29, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Protests here in Mosul are 100% impossible, Hazem added, brushing the idea away with his hand as if it was absurd.  

"Nine years ago, there were anti-government protests," he explained. The protests may not have directly led to the fall of the regional government, but the government fell nevertheless, and IS took over.

"If we went out to protest, the security forces would think we were IS militants," Hazem told us. "They would kill us all."
The other young men nodded in agreement. There is a feeling in Mosul that even a small amount of unrest could collapse the fragile status quo.

More than three years after Islamic State militants were defeated in northern Iraq, many parts of the city of Mosul are still in ruins, Jan. 29, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Still, the demands of protesters in other cities resonate with Mosul activists, who say they face the same problems.
"In Mosul, we support the youth in other cities in social media campaigns," said Bender al-Okidy, in Mosul's Old City, a neighborhood that was almost entirely destroyed in the war.  Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble.

"We support them emotionally and with our condolences," he added. "This is all we can do now, because Mosul is struggling."  

About an hour and a half's drive from Mosul is Irbil, a Kurdish city that is generally safer and more financially stable than most of Iraq.

The Kurdish city of Irbil, Iraq, is generally safer and less poor than much of the country, yet young activists say they support the protests in the south, Jan. 28, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Checkpoints manned by militias, the Iraqi army and finally Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers extends the drive and emphasizes a point: this city is part of a semi-autonomous region, not entirely governed by Baghdad.

Young people here say corruption in the federal government affects all of Iraq, and they hope the demonstrations in the south continue until protesters' demands are met.  
At the same time, they said, they hope it all ends soon. The Kurdish region has been in the center of many wars and conflicts, most recently in 2017. And while the streets of Irbil are peaceful right now, unpredictability is the norm for Iraq.

"When the capital has problems, we have problems," said Ismael, 30, as he strolled out of the college campus where he studies nutritional science. "People are afraid here of what will be next. What is the next fight we are facing?"

Business owners in Irbil, Iraq, and other cities say unrest due to protests is straining their economy, Jan. 25, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

A few miles away in a busy traditional bazaar, shopkeepers said that as in Mosul, fears in the Kurdistan region also are dragging down the economy.

"People around here are scared to buy anything now," said Derbas Kareem, a shopkeeper who sells high-end fabric for women's clothes. "Our business is down 75%."

Protesters in Tahrir Square in Baghdad continue to occupy the square after forces moved them back in clashes last week, Jan. 23, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)


On the streets of Baghdad, activists say there are no more options. Their demands will be met, or demonstrations will continue, despite the violence.

Newly appointed Iraqi Prime Minster Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi has said he will work to meet the protesters' demands.

"I call for immediate dialogue with the peaceful protesters to work toward achieving their legitimate rights in accordance with law and constitution," he said on Iraqi state TV.  
But his promises have been largely rejected so far, with protesters saying Allawi is a part of the system they denounce as hopelessly corrupt.

Protesters across Iraq block roads, often with burning tires in an attempt to pressure the government into action, in Baghdad, Jan. 23, 2020. (H.Murdock/VOA)

And activists across the country continue to vow they will not be silenced until the system is dismantled and basic government services are available to all.

"I am here in Tahrir Square, and I will not leave," said Hussein Raham, a protester in Baghdad. "The first and last demonstration started on Oct. 1, and we will continue until our last breath."

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