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Iraqi Youth Protesters Risk Lives To Mount Revolution

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Let's turn now to Iraq, where anti-government protests have been going on for the past month. The country's prime minister has agreed to step down, but that has not stopped the unrest. At the heart of the demonstrations are young men who are demanding nothing less than a revolution, and they're risking their lives to make it happen. NPR's Jane Arraf has more from Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Essa, who's 23, shakes a can of red spray paint. He crouches over the sidewalk and writes something shocking about Iran's supreme leader. Khamenei is an ass, it reads. The insult to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spray-painted without fear in a Baghdad square would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago.

ESSA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Essa says he has nothing to lose. He's a laborer with no work, and he blames that on corrupt politicians and Iraqi political parties that put neighboring Iran's interests first. The abandoned building he's in front of is full of young Iraqis willing to risk their lives. Protesters set fire to the empty high-rise and then took it over to prevent security forces from using it to kill demonstrators in the square below. They're occupying it in constant fear the government will storm the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

ARRAF: It's just a concrete shell with no electricity, no elevators, no toilets. The stench is so strong some of the protesters wear surgical masks as they jostle to climb the unlit staircase with a sheer drop on one side.

So we're in a concrete staircase, a really narrow one. It's packed with hundreds of young men who are climbing up to the very top, which is 13 floors.

Halfway up, I meet Ghazwan from the south of Iraq. He's in his early 20s, and he spent a year and a half fighting ISIS with one of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. He says he didn't get paid - didn't even get a thank you. He says Iran needs to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs. He's been sleeping on the floor in this building for the past week. He's so tired, he says he can barely remember his own name.

GHAZWAN: (Through interpreter) If not for me, it's for my future sons, so they can get jobs. There's no future here in Iraq.

ARRAF: Some of the protesters here are as young as 15. Most protesters give their full names. We're just using first names because some of them have been kidnapped and many threatened. These past weeks of demonstrations, where more than 250 protesters have been killed, have broken a lot of barriers. In protests in early October, security forces and suspected Iran-backed militias used live fire, shooting unarmed demonstrators in the head and chest. Some were believed to have been shot from this very building.

And then we come into the sunlight on the roof, 13 floors up. It's absolutely packed with young people, all standing under a giant Iraqi flag. And down below, you can see the bridge. You can see the standoff between the protesters and the security forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

ARRAF: That bridge leads to the Green Zone, and before that, the Iranian Embassy. Demonstrators set off fireworks. Akeel, one of the protesters, says it's safe enough now, but it won't be when night falls.

AKEEL: (Through interpreter) They don't shoot in the daytime, but at sunset, security forces come out and disperse everyone from both sides.

ARRAF: A few hours later, one of the protesters near the bridge dies after being hit by a rubber bullet. This building, this square is full of young people who say no one in power has listened to them their entire lives. They say it isn't just a protest. It's a revolution.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "FANSHAWE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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