By Murtada Alhudood, in Nasiriyah
After nearly four months of anti-government protests in Iraq, the demonstrators in the city of Nasiriyah are perceived to be at the leading edge of anti-government action, a kind of unofficial spokesgroup for all of the others elsewhere in the country.
The city of two million now counts over 100 locals killed and over 2,600 wounded; there have also been dozens of protesters arrested, many of whom were eventually released on bail.
Most recently the demonstrators here blocked roads leading into Dhi Qar’s capital from other provinces. If one was to link Basra and Baghdad in a direct line, Nasiriyah would be right in the middle of that line. From January 13, they gave the government a week to choose an independent prime minister and ratify a new, more just election law. None of this happened and the roadblocks have continued. The idea has also spread to demonstrators elsewhere in the country. In Baghdad, young men displayed a large stopwatch, showing the countdown to the seven-day deadline.
In early October last year, the demonstrators here were the first to attack the local offices of national political parties, setting some of them alight. This was something that had not previously happened elsewhere in Iraq. The attacks led to direct clashes with the security forces and multiple injuries and deaths.
One political scientist in the province, Amir Dohi, believes that Nasiriyah’s leadership in protests is no accident. Rather, he suggests, it comes because the province and city have a long history of neglect by the central government. Additionally – or perhaps, as a result – there are also a large number of unemployed graduates in the state, from local universities. One of the issues many of the young Iraqis are protesting about is unemployment, even if they have a qualification.
The city is of strategic importance and has also been a haven for rebels in the past, ever since the time of ancient Mesopotamia. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in charge, many of his opponents fled to this area and hid in the surrounding marshes.
The city’s location made it possible for Nasiriyah protesters to do serious damage to the state when, in November 2019, they decided to cut off bridges and roads to impede government traffic, both local and national.
Other protesters here formed what they named the “anti-attendance squad”, which tried to obstruct civil servants from going to work, putting up banners that said things like “closed, by the order of the people” outside government offices.
These escalations led to deadly clashes with state security forces. A two-day military operation ended up with over 40 dead protesters and more than 300 wounded.
Other groups of demonstrators throughout the country held mourning events to commemorate those who died, and some even went to Nasiriyah to declare their solidarity. All over the country, banners were raised by protesters that said things like “Nasiriyah represents us” and calling the deaths the “Nasiriyah massacre”.
After their tents were torn down, Nasiriyah’s demonstrators rebuilt the structures they had been sheltering in, but this time with concrete blocks. It’s a sign of their determination, says Zahra Amer, who’s been at the protests since the day they started. She’s been a first aider, helping those who are wounded, and had herself suffered a broken shoulder after being run over by a military vehicle.
“Despite everything that has happened,” she confirms, “we will not retreat.”