In Baghdad's protests, all bridges lead to 'revolution'

Baghdad (AFP) –


The bridges over Baghdad's Tigris river, named to honour "free men" and "martyrs," have turned into frontlines between Iraq's protesters demanding regime change and security forces protecting key government buildings.

As the weeks-long demonstrations drag on, activists have trickled from their main encampment in Tahrir (Liberation) Square to take position along four consecutive bridges.

They have set up barricades to face off against security forces and rerouted traffic in commercial areas.

"We want to block everything. No one goes to work anymore," said Imad Hassan, 45, a protester.

"This is how people who are not protesting can help us bring down the government that is oppressing us," he said, wearing a sign hung around his neck bearing one of the protest movement's main slogans: "I want my country."

Beyond their symbolic names, the bridges have high strategic value: they lead to the district of the capital that hosts the parliament, cabinet headquarters, central bank and foreign embassies.

If they can reach this centre of state power, the protesters say, they can expand their sit-in campaign and ramp up pressure on the government to step down.

They first began occupying a bridge called "Al-Jumhuriyah" or "The Republic," which leads into the heart of the so-called Green Zone, the high-security enclave where the US and UK missions are based.

- 'We're going to resist' -

Security forces have set up three barricades along the bridge to protect the sensitive area, which has been breached by demonstrators in previous years.

To keep the protesters back, they have launched volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets -- but also live rounds and even machine-gun fire.

The gas grenades have become some of the most feared weapons, with security forces said to have shot them at point-blank range, piercing protesters' skulls or lungs.

Hoping to protect themselves, demonstrators have donned construction helmets and built shelters out of metal plates and rusty barrels.

Some wear thick gardening gloves so they can grab the searing-hot canisters and throw them back at police.

Others use green and red laser pointers to disrupt the security forces' vision.

Volunteer medics are even on-hand at the bridges to treat light wounds and rush any more serious injuries to field hospitals set up in nearby buildings.

From Al-Jumhuriyah, protesters have moved on to three more bridges, starting with Al-Sinek, which leads to the embassy of Iran, the neighbouring country accused by protesters of propping up Iraq's regime.

Then, they closed off Al-Ahrar and Al-Shuhada.

The clashes usually begin in the late afternoon, and the steady pops of tear gas canisters and stun grenades quieting just before dawn.

"We're going to stay here, we're going to resist, to protect the area and the revolution," said Abbas, 24, on Al-Ahrar (The Free Men) bridge.

He was decked out in a cargo vest he purchased from a military surplus store that he used to carry a bottle of Coca-Cola to relieve irritation from tear gas.

"Otherwise, they'll attack the protesters in Tahrir with water cannons, tear gas, live rounds and machine guns which are killing people every day," Abbas said.

- Below the bridge -

The battles of the bridges have also seen the return of the much-maligned concrete blast walls that had lined Baghdad's streets during years of sectarian violence.

Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi had championed their removal to show the capital was safe after the defeat of the Islamic State jihadist group, but the so-called t-walls are now back.

And if there's a battle over each bridge, there's an entire war happening underneath it.

The police's river units have fired stun grenades at protesters along the bank, the sounds of the explosion multiplied by the metal structures above.

Echoing through surrounding neighbourhoods, the blasts have brought back bitter memories of daily attacks in the capital's residential districts in recent years.

The demonstrations have been deadly, with 157 people killed in the first six-day wave of protests in early October, according to a government probe.

More than 120 people have died since they resumed on October 24, many of them losing their lives on the bridges.

On Thursday alone, three people were killed when security forces opened fire at protesters on the eastern bank of the Tigris, security and medical sources said.

They died between bridges named after "the free men" and "the martyrs".