“It was as if we were in some European country,” Mazen al-Aboudi, a 19-year-old Baghdad local, said. “The streets are clean and there is electricity all the time. I was so surprised to see how the politicians of this country live!”
And the teenager was not alone. Thousands of demonstrators expressed similar opinions over the weekend as they managed to make their way into Baghdad’s legendary Green Zone, also known as the International Zone. The area is usually heavily fortified and guarded and only those with the right identification and badges can enter – it is where most foreigners live and work and also the site of the US Embassy. Usually ordinary Iraqis cannot enter this area.
The demonstrators had gathered around the Green Zone earlier and were waiting for the results of a session of the Iraqi Parliament that was supposed to result in a number of new ministers for various portfolios. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to replace those politicians appointed through cronyism or simply because of Iraq's political quota system, with better managers. More names were expected to be announced at this session. However the session was postponed, Iraq’s Speaker of the Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri, announced. There was a lack of quorum – that is, not enough MPs were present to pass any changes legally.
The Green Zone stands for so much that ordinary Iraqis both despise and desire.
Upon hearing this, the protestors stormed the Green Zone. Most of the MPs and officials managed to escape through different gates although a couple remained trapped and were badly beaten by angry protestors. This included Amar Tomeh and Iraqi Kurdish MP, Aram Sheikh Mohammed. Security forces present were unable to prevent the protestors entering the Green Zone or from beating the MPs.
And the hundreds of protestors were not content just to check out the Parliament Building. They began touring the Green Zone and many, like 19-year-old al-Abboudi, were impressed and even shocked at the gardens, swimming pools and well-maintained buildings. Some sat in the gardens, others went for a swim. A lot took pictures of themselves for souvenirs. On Iraqi social media hundreds of pictures and videos were posted, showing corners of Baghdad that protestors had only ever seen on TV before.
Protestors appeared to be most impressed with the Green Zone’s major square, known as Celebration Sqaure, where there is a large statue with huge crossed swords. Every year there is a major commemorative military parade in this square – it’s a tradition that is several decades old but since 2003, when the Green Zone was created after the US-led invasion of Iraq, ordinary Iraqis have been unable to see it in person.
This weekend though, hundreds of protestors prayed in the square when it came time for worship. Others held a mock military parade and some visited the military museum nearby.
Another favourite place to take a picture was Iraq’s 14th July Bridge, the only suspension bridge in the city, which was built to celebrate the overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy on July 14, 1958. Since the Green Zone was established ordinary residents have been unable to use the bridge at all.
“The bridge is only a few meters from my house,” Baghdad resident, Abdul-Jabbar al-Masoudi, told NIQASH. “But I have never been allowed to cross it. The closure of this bridge has created the worst traffic in Baghdad.”
Hundreds of the protestors also made it into the actual Parliament buildings. Many took photos of themselves inside and others created humorous videos of their friends, pretending to be politicians, ranting and raving. Others took pictures of themselves occupying the seat of the Speaker of Parliament. One protestor even stole the ceremonial hammer that the Speaker uses to keep order in the house; he later posted a picture of the hammer on his own Facebook page.
Some also took time to mock a large sign hanging between Parliament buildings and other government offices. It says: Only Badge Holders May Enter Here.
Badges and identification cards are very important in the Green Zone, with the most important being a black badge, held by senior army personnel and government ministers. The next most important are the maroon badges – worn by deputy ministers and senior government employees – and the grey badges, which belong to the ordinary people who live inside the Green Zone, are for lesser mortals.
Some of the protestors were so enchanted by this “other country” within their own country that they decided to spend the night, setting up tents and sleeping in gardens and yards, bringing in takeaway food from restaurants outside the Green Zone.
By Sunday evening, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whom many of the protestors supported, had called for everyone to leave the Green Zone. Al-Sadr told his followers to leave the area peacefully and even to clean up after themselves.
As the New York Times reported, the episode had become “an affirmation of Sadr’s sway over the street, but one aimed at pressuring the government to enact promised reforms rather than bringing it down”.
Al-Sadr has continued with his calls for reform of Iraqi politics, demanding that the government vote on the proposed new, allegedly-less-corrupt-and-more-efficient Cabinet within days. If the vote does not go ahead, al-Sadr has threatened to organize new demonstrations inside the Green Zone.
Of course, not everyone was happy about the protests. Despite the fact that the protests actually support his proposed reforms, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, who is tasked with rearranging the Cabinet, did not seem pleased when he returned to Parliament to survey the damage. Al-Abadi had pictures taken of himself in the buildings and he told reporters that those responsible for the damage would have to be held accountable.
But even as the demonstrators left the Green Zone there was a sense of excitement and a feeling of achievement. For one thing, ordinary Iraqis had managed to document their travels in this other cleaner, safer, more efficient Iraq - this was most likely their only chance ever to visit here. The Green Zone stands for so much that ordinary Iraqis both despise and desire. For another, they had managed to stage a comparatively peaceful protest against a political system that has only ever served a handful of Iraq’s 30-million-plus population for over a decade.