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Protestors bond over falafel and tuk-tuks at iconic Baghdad square

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Baghdad (AFP)

It has become the focal point of protests and a social melting pot: Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the site of a week of anti-government rallies, has seen protestors bridge sectarian divides and challenge conservative norms.

Men and women of all ages have pitched in to support the demonstrations, handing out food and treating the wounded as tuk-tuks zip past.

The drivers of the motorised rickshaws, typically seen in poorer parts of the capital, have become the unofficial heros of the protest movement.

"Tuk-tuk guys were rejected by society before, but now they've got a central place in the protests," said Ali Korani, a 26-year-old protester.

"First aid or food, they bring it to us. Rescuing the wounded? Tuk-tuk. Need to get from one place to another? Tuk-tuk!"

The drivers, scrawny young men who use their horns liberally, have wrapped their cars in Iraqi flags, sparking cheers from protesters as they pass.

Iraqi celebrities have even been spotted snapping selfies with them, and the United Nations' top representative in the country, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, rode in one when she visited protesters in Tahrir on Wednesday.

Korani praised them for their role in a movement calling for an end to official corruption.

"We'll erect a statue to tuk-tuk drivers here in Tahrir and give them all the big SUVs used by officials," he said.

- 'Everything has changed' -

Another social barrier has been cracked as crowds of women have joined the rallies.

Iraqi society is largely conservative and in parts of the country, young men and women who are not married or related are rarely seen together in public.

Samara, an engineering student in a black headscarf, is one of a growing number of students and schoolchildren skipping class to protest.

"Boys usually think us girls are weak and we can't go into these kinds of places, but the opposite is true," she said.

"We found all religions, all provinces, without divides. Everything has changed. We're one now," she told AFP, her pistachio-green eyes glimmering.

The majority of Iraqis are Shiite, with a large Sunni minority in the west and an autonomous Kurdish region in the north.

The country has been rocked by decades of back-to-back conflicts, including a particularly bloody period of sectarian violence around 2005 and the rise and fall of the Sunni extremist Islamic State group between 2014 and 2017.

But the young protesters in Tahrir say they're putting the country, where the youth make up 60 percent of the 40 million population, on a new path.

"Without us, the country would have been destroyed," said Aminah Karim, a medical student with an Iraqi flag wrapped around her shoulders.

"We're building a new society here that is healthier and includes everyone."

- Food for the soul -

But to revolt, one must eat. In Tahrir, protesters can take their pick from falafel and beans, bowls of hot lentil soup and burgers with fries, available around-the-clock and mostly for free.

"I'm making food for everyone!" said Ibrahim Abdelhussein, doling out plates of rice and tender meat.

He even cooks masgoof, an iconic Iraqi delicacy of chargrilled, fatty carp eaten by hand.

At a makeshift medical clinic, volunteer Zainab al-Kaissi pointed out a huge pile of donated medicines.

"Why am I here? Because I'm Iraqi!" said the 39-year-old proudly, sporting a white visor over her pink headscarf.

The field hospital was set up to treat those affected by tear gas fired by security forces.

The gas has left people struggling to breathe and some protestors have even died after being hit in the head or chest by the searing-hot canisters.

Some pharmacists have offered discounts of nearly 40 percent to those buying painkillers, bandages and inhalers for demonstrators.

Protesters have occupied Tahrir for seven consecutive days, ignoring an overnight curfew declared by the army and volunteering to keep the streets clean.

Alia, a 29-year-old student, snapped on her red plastic gloves and picked up a bucket, broom and dustbin to tackle piles of rubbish left in the streets.

She was joined by her new comrades, girls she had met just days ago in the carnival-like atmosphere.

Nearby, girls with tangles of uncovered curly hair marched next to older Shiite clerics in white turbans.

Tents erected by residents of the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City bordered small stands where Iraqis with gravity-defying coiffes broadcast electro beats.

"We came here and were surprised to see so many people from Sadr City. We didn't think they'd join us," one student told AFP, raising his thick eyebrows.

A little further on, volunteers bandaged protesters wounded when security forces fired tear gas canisters to disperse their rally.

But as the smell dispersed, another one took its place -- that of hot, fresh falafel.

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