Abandoned block turns into control tower of Baghdad protests

Baghdad (AFP) –


From his perch overlooking Tahrir Square, Ezzedin surveils gathering protesters and tense riot police. Once abandoned, the so-called "Turkish Restaurant" building has returned as the strategic heart of Iraq's demonstrations.

The 18-storey building traces Iraq's tumultuous recent history, but most of those occupying it now after a month of anti-government rallies are too young to know that.

Ezzedin, a 21-year-old engineering student who has skipped class for the past week to protest, is one of them.

"We're the backbone of the protesters," he tells AFP proudly from the 8th floor.

For him, the building is a prized observation post, from which he and his comrades can monitor the swelling crowds beneezi37

ath them in Tahrir and the key Al-Jumhuriyah bridge.

The bridge links Tahrir to the Green Zone, where government offices and foreign embassies are based, and security forces have erected barricades along it to keep protesters from storming the enclave.

Riot police fire a deadly type of tear gas canister at groups of young men who have set up their own makeshift barriers on the bridge -- all under Ezzedin's watchful eye.

"We provide logistical support to our brothers on the ground by telling them when security forces are retreating or pushing forward," he says.

They have occupied the building since a new wave of protests broke out in Iraq on October 24, following a deadly week-long spree of rallies earlier that month.

But the "Turkish Restaurant" has a long history.

The sprawling concrete complex on the edge of the Tigris was built in the 1980s and allegedly earned its name from a Turkish eatery on the top floor.

It was bombed during the first Gulf War in 1991 but subsequently refurbished by then-dictator Saddam Hussein as a government headquarters.

- An arduous climb -

During the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled him, the building was bombed again precisely because it looked over the Al-Jumhuriyah bridge, which US forces crossed to seize Baghdad.

It lay abandoned until 2011, when security forces used it to monitor protests in Tahrir against then-premier Nuri al-Maliki.

Now, the script has flipped.

"This is a battle for control. If the security forces seize the building, the protesters will be in trouble," says Dergham, another Iraqi protester.

Many have spent eight straight days sleeping in the building, and it's easy to see why -- reaching its top is no easy task.

It means crossing near Al-Jumhuriyah bridge, which is subjected to volleys of tear gas from forces deployed nearby.

Protesters then ascend a dim stairwell packed with young men, lighting the steps with their cellphone torches as the building has no electricity.

It is an arduous journey and many stop on the third floor for a puff of a water pipe or on the fifth for a game of dominoes.

There is no internet access, so they call each other to share updates on the protests below.

The new tenants are camped in every corner of the gutted building, bringing thick blankets to protect them from nighttime temperatures as the building has been stripped of all furniture or appliances.

The stench is an overpowering blend of years of mouldy overgrowth -- and days of protesters without baths.

Many take mid-day naps to prepare for their overnight monitoring shifts, somehow sleeping through the honking, music and anti-government chants.

"We divvy up the jobs: some sleep at night, others during the day, so our eyes are never shut," says Dergham.

- 'Fort Baghdad' -

The building has become a symbol of this latest chapter in Iraq's history -- the most widespread and deadliest grassroots protests in recent memory.

More than 250 people have died since the demonstrations erupted on October 1, around half of them in Baghdad.

Some of their pictures are hung on the building.

Other banners read "no division, no quota system", rejecting the way government jobs are doled out to different sects and political parties in the country.

Iraqi flags of different sizes are draped from its windows as well as a Lebanese flag -- a sign of solidarity with anti-government rallies sweeping up that country too.

The building has earned itself a litany of new names: "Revolution Mountain," "Fort Baghdad" and the "Hanging Gardens," after the famed ancient gardens of Babylon.

"This building is the protesters' lifeline, its symbolic and even defensive spirit," says Muthanna Youssef, 42.

"It will go down in history."

For now, the building is a thorn in the government's side, as protesters taunt security forces and chant vulgar slogans against premier Adel Abdel Mahdi from its rooftops.

One joke even circulating online tells of the prime minister calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to demand: "Come take your restaurant back!"