BAGHDAD: Iraqis flooded the streets of the capital and southern cities yesterday in a general strike that bolstered the weeks-long movement demanding a government overhaul. Sit-ins have become the go-to tactic for the rallies that erupted in early October in rage over corruption, a lack of jobs and an out-of-touch political class. They have resisted efforts by security forces to snuff them out and yesterday, thousands came out across the country after activists called for a general strike.
In the southern hotspots of Kut, Najaf, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah, schools and government offices were shut as swelling crowds hit the streets. Protesters cut roads in the oil-rich port city of Basra by burning tyres and in Hillah, south of Baghdad, students and other activists massed in front of the provincial headquarters. “We’ll keep up our protest and general strike with all Iraqis until we force the government to resign,” said Hassaan Al-Tufan, a lawyer and activist.
In Baghdad hundreds of students skipped class to gather in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the beating heart of the protest movement. “No politics, no parties, this is a student awakening!” read one banner carried by young Iraqis with rucksacks. They waved the Iraqi tricolor, marching north from Tahrir to the nearby Khallani Square.
Security forces had pulled back from their positions along that street early Saturday and demonstrators spilled out into those neighborhoods and onto the nearby Al-Sinek bridge. They immediately set up tents on a first segment of the bridge, facing off against riot police stationed behind two layers of thick concrete blast walls. Just beyond those barriers was the embassy of neighboring Iran, which protesters have criticized for propping up the government they want to bring down.
“We students are here to help the other protesters, and we won’t retreat a single step,” said a teenager wearing thick black-framed glasses. Speaking anonymously because he said he had been threatened for his involvement in the anti-government movement, he said hundreds of teenagers had skipped class. Nearby, a volunteer medic in plastic surgeons’ gloves urged laborers across Iraq to join the strike. “Everyone should have a time set aside to take part in the protest,” he said.
The government has proposed a laundry list of reforms in recent weeks but demonstrators have brushed them off as too little, too late in a country ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world by Transparency International. “These steps, these reforms are just an opiate for the masses. Nothing more, nothing less,” another protester said yesterday. Pointing across the river to the area where parliament, the premier’s office and other key buildings are, he insisted the protesters wanted “new faces”. “There are so many capable young people in Iraq who are deprived – and unfortunately those are the guys that rule us?” he said. – AFP