The Stories behind Iraq’s Revolutionary Places: Tahrir Square, Baghdad

By Mustafa Habib, Baghdad

 

Tahrir Square, in the heart of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has become one of the best known Iraqi landmarks in the country, and possibly around the world too. It is well known as the site of multiple anti-government protests, and in particular, the most recent ones during which many Iraqis have protested against corruption in their current government.

In early October, thousands of Iraqis gathered in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, to begin the protests that are ongoing today. A few days later the security forces pushed them out of Tahrir Square – it was simply seen as too dangerously symbolic.

However Tahrir Square was not always the best known Iraqi town square. Previously it was probably Firdous, or Paradise, Square, about three kilometres away from Tahrir Square. This is where US soldiers toppled a large statue of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein in 2003, a scene that came to symbolize the fall of his regime. If there were demonstrations between 2003 and 2011, they often took place on Firdous Square. Those demonstrations were usually limited to more specific demands, around increasing pensions, a demand for jobs or more partisan protests.

It wasn’t until 2011, when protesters started to make more all-encompassing demands of the government led by Nouri al-Maliki that appeared to be working only to enrich itself, that they began to gather on Tahrir Square rather than Firdous Square.

There were some good reasons for this. The square is close to Baghdad’s high security Green Zone, where government buildings and embassies are located as well as the homes of senior politicians.

On the right of the square, there is a famous street, formerly home to most of Baghdad’s movie theatres. On the left, a road leads to the city’s largest market for automotive parts, then onto the country’s largest commercial centre. In front of the square is a bridge, connecting the square to the Karrada district, which was once home to Baghdad’s Jewish and Christian families.

Also around Tahrir Square are a plethora of second-hand and vintage bookstores, as well as dozens of camera stores. If you visit Tahrir Square, don’t be surprised if somebody comes to ask if they can take your picture next to the monument.

Tahrir Square is also the home of the iconic 1960s monument of Iraqi liberation. Iraqi artist Jawad Salim wanted the monument to show various events in Iraqi history, with a mixture of ancient and more modern happenings. So it includes art and inscriptions from the Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian eras as well as modern history, such as the abolition of the Iraqi monarchy.

Iraqis are proud of this monument and many feel it truly represents them. However at night, it was hard to see the monument because it isn’t lit up in any way. Since the anti-government demonstrators moved into the square late in 2019, they have remedied this. Now every night the freedom monument is lit up with strings of coloured lights.

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