Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
World

Protests Against Government Corruption In Iraq Have Been Met With Violence

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Iraq, a closer look at one city tells us a lot about what's driving the protests for change in that country and reveals the dangers faced by activists who are making their demands heard. NPR's Alice Fordham went to the city of Nasiriyah and sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKE ENGINE REVVING)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It doesn't take long to pick up a revolutionary vibe in Nasiriyah. There are large posters of people killed in protests. Even on the relatively quiet days I visited recently, I saw one demonstration in a central square and another that briefly closed a major bridge. People are calling for a fairer economy and less dominance by powerful families and for the release of detained demonstrators.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET NOISES)

FORDHAM: Nasiriyah lies in Iraq's poor southern heartland. There's oil here, but the industry employs few locals. And a protest movement that swept Iraq 18 months ago is still very much alive here. Earlier in the year, things seemed somewhat optimistic. Back then, I spoke with protest leader Alaa al Rikabi, who was among those starting new political parties.

ALAA AL RIKABI: Peaceful change in the political situation that eventually ends with the election boxes.

FORDHAM: He spoke to me by phone before my visit.

AL RIKABI: We are going to be participating in an opposition party in the parliament, seeking to have the political majority in the parliament someday maybe, maybe several years.

FORDHAM: That was the plan. But by the time I got to Nasiriyah, Rikabi said he needed family time and couldn't meet with me. Activists are facing dangers here.

ADNAN AZIZ DAFFAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: I meet Adnan Aziz Daffar in a little store he runs in a market. He said activists like him here suffer oppression and threats, arrests, sound bombs outside their houses, even assassinations.

DAFFAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: Their opponents are against thought, he says, against anyone who threatens their interests. He blames security forces, but also powerful Iran-backed militia groups. Nasiriyah is a flashpoint, but analysts say it reflects a troubling trend.

BELKIS WILLE: So unfortunately, what we've seen in Iraq has been a real increase in the risk that activists, journalists, protesters are taking any time that they try to criticize the government, political parties, armed groups.

FORDHAM: Belkis Wille is with Human Rights Watch. She notes recently, Prime Minister Mustafah Al-Kadhimi did lead the arrest of men accused of killing journalists and activists in the city of Basra, but adds that Iran-backed militias in particular are so powerful now that it's hard for even the prime minister to keep them in check.

WILLE: I think so much more action is going to be needed from the government if protesters are going to be able to feel safe again and most importantly, perhaps, if young people who really want to change the political landscape in Iraq will feel safe in mounting a political platform.

FORDHAM: When I put all this to Wathiq al Jabri, an adviser to the governor, he denies there are threats against activists. He says this is a democracy where everyone can exercise their right to demonstrate

WATHIQ AL JABRI: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: But many say repression is making them think democratic change is impossible. I speak with longtime activist Uday al-Jabiri.

UDAY AL-JABIRI: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Any activist or independent person who tries to nominate themselves for election will be threatened," he says. "The existing parties have money and connections to militias," he says, "and they will hold on to the authority."

AL-JABIRI: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: But people are angry. And despite the odds stacked against them, he doesn't expect the protests to cool down anytime soon.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Nasiriyah, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER'S "HOLOCENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.