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Peaceful Demonstrations In Baghdad Provide Hope For Reform


Many Iraqis are also fleeing their country, escaping areas controlled by ISIS or the violence and corruption that has plagued other parts of the country. But some Iraqis are staying in the belief that they can find peaceful ways to bring about reform. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on their efforts.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Every Friday for six weeks, Baghdad's very own Tahrir Square has been flooded with demonstrators.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

FORDHAM: Iraq is partly controlled by ISIS. There's regular bombings, a government deemed one of the world's most corrupt, and sectarian militias are growing in strength. It can seem like power can only be won with guns and influence. But there are some, like teacher Nidal Munati, who believe in peaceful protest.

NIDAL MUNATI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Munati says the demonstrations are continuing, and no one can say the numbers are dwindling.

MUNATI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: She wants corrupt politicians to be tried by unbiased judges. Demonstrations began in the capital in southern Iraq when a fierce heat wave left people even angrier than usual about the scarce electricity supply which, in some places, only runs a couple hours a day. Raya Assi, a filmmaker, says when she went to the first demo, it was so exhilarating, it felt like flying.

RAYA ASSI: It's - yeah, we were flying (laughter).

FORDHAM: The crowd's demands expanded to include corruption trials, the firing of notorious judges, reform of the army. Assi say all kinds of people, religious and relaxed alike, joined in.

ASSI: The religion people, the liberal people, the other people - all of them - they came to the Tahrir Square because it's really - they're fed up.

FORDHAM: I meet journalist and protest organizer Ali al-Summari, who says he's not surprised there are many people in Iraq who still believe in peaceful protest.

ALI AL-SUMMARI: (Through interpreter) We call it, like, the silent majority, all of those people, and I think this is the right time for them.

FORDHAM: But one thing did surprise him - the fact that powerful cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani backed the demonstrators.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: In a statement in early August read by his representative, Sistani said the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, should respond to the demands of his people. Activists say this could be why the protests weren't stopped by security forces as has happened before.

Instead, Abadi introduced reforms, including eliminating highly paid government jobs and ministries widely seen as unproductive. He's promised corruption trials and the opening of the Green Zone where officials live. There's a lot of skepticism. Nezar Mahawi is making a documentary about the demonstrations.

NEZAR MAHAWI: No - this is just talk - I mean, nothing deep, nothing serious about reforming, and it's just to calm people down and to send them back to their houses.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

FORDHAM: Except they're not back in their homes. At the demonstrations, people seem determined. Hamza Brahim, a carpenter, says Iraqi people have to show the world they have strength of will.

HAMZA BRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "The Iraqi people have kept silent," he says, "and if they stay inside, nothing will change. But if the protests spread, then change will follow." Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.