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Baghdad Anti-Government Protests Escalate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The anti-government protests in Iraq escalated today. Security forces fired live bullets and canisters of tear gas into crowds of demonstrators, killing three protesters. The government says the protesters were throwing rocks at the security forces and wounded more than a dozen. NPR's Jane Arraf was at the protest in Baghdad and has this report.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Protesters called for a general strike today. And from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra, they tried to block highways and close government offices. In Baghdad, protesters burned tires to stop traffic at a major interchange down the road from Tahrir Square. Security forces drove them back. But by midmorning, the protesters had returned, a few of them with Molotov cocktails, homemade gasoline bombs that they lobbed at security forces dangerously close to a fuel station.

OK, now they are firing tear gas, and people are running. Oh, gosh. They're near a gas station, and the medic is shouting at them, not near the gas station. And I think we're going to go back.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: It's three months into the protests, and now there are crews. We meet a couple of the guys who have taken on the job of picking up the tear gas canisters and throwing them back at security forces. One of them is wearing a fire-resistant glove. The other has been using his bare hands. He's not wearing a shirt. His chest and his hands are black with soot. He's 28 years old and, before the protests, he had a garage. Like most of the protesters, he doesn't want to give his name in fear of being arrested or kidnapped by militias. I ask him what's happening.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Through interpreter) The Iranian forces are attacking us, OK? What else does Iran and its parties want from us?

ARRAF: The protesters believe Iraqi security forces are run by Iran. There's more tear gas fired, and the crack of a rifle.

What is that?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Live bullets. A wave of protesters surges forward. A protester named Jassim (ph) is carrying a Molotov cocktail. He says he's an Army soldier who has joined the protesters. Some people think he's an infiltrator.

JASSIM: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "This is the simplest thing to defend ourselves," he tells me. "They have guns."

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

ARRAF: A tuk-tuk, one of the three-wheeled vehicles, races by with an injured protester. Down the street, a group of young men are taking a burned-out bus apart to use the metal panels as shields against tear gas canisters. A young woman in a white medic's coat, a volunteer, is running from the tear gas. She doesn't want to give her name. She says the Iraqi government doesn't care about the more than 600 protesters killed, the 20,000 injured.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Through interpreter) They don't care about our generation. They don't care about our youth. Don't think we'll stop. Enough. We're fed up with everything. We can't keep silent.

ARRAF: She switches to English.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Save the people of Iraq, please, for everyone.

ARRAF: Near Tahrir Square, I meet six other young men wearing tactical vests, each pocket with a Molotov cocktail in it. They're heading for the intersection. One of them, named Mohammad (ph), tells me they're the front line of the protests, an attempt to keep security forces from hurting the protesters behind them.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We are going there so the Army doesn't get into Tahrir Square and hurt people. We will be like human shields to let the protesters, the doctors, the engineers, the educated people protest peacefully here.

ARRAF: He takes me into a tent. There are crates of Molotov cocktails here.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We don't throw them directly at them. We're throwing them just to hit the ground in front of them.

ARRAF: One of the protest organizers, Kamal Jabbar, says he has advised the young protesters not to throw the gasoline bombs - that it's hurting their cause.

KAMAL JABBAR: This argument - I lost this argument. I cannot keep telling them, go; God will protect you. God is not protecting us.

ARRAF: The protesters say they have to protect themselves.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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