BAGHDAD: Iraqi authorities reopened Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Saturday, symbolically ending more than a year of demonstrations at the site, a focal point for the country’s anti-government protest movement.
They also reopened the nearby Jumhuriyah bridge, which leads toward the heavily fortified Green Zone housing government buildings, parliament and foreign embassies. A hotspot of clashes during the protests, the bridge across the Tigris River witnessed fierce clashes between protesters and government forces last year as protesters tried to cross it. It has been sealed off to traffic since.
The reopening of the bridge and removal of tents in Tahrir Square appeared to put a formal end to a mass movement that had for a brief moment given many Iraqis hope for the future.
“The opening of Al-Jumhuriyah bridge and the removal of the tents from Tahrir Square was done in coordination with the protesters and there was no tension whatsoever,” said Maj. Gen. Qais Al-Mohammadawi, the head of Baghdad Operations Command.
Protester tents have been dismantled at the Tahrir roundabout, now again circled by cars, and the towering concrete walls used to close off the Al-Jumhuriyah bridge across the Tigris River have been removed.
Security forces used bulldozers to help clear some of the protesters’ tents in Tahrir Square. A few days before, thousands had rallied there to mark the anniversary of the mass demonstrations that swept the country against corruption by Iraq’s entrenched political parties and its sectarian system.
Tahrir Square and its massive Freedom Monument was at the heart of the movement that brought together hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in October 2019, paralysing the capital and southern Iraq for months.
Clashes with security forces during the revolt left around 600 people dead and 30,000 wounded, the vast majority demonstrators.
“The reopening of these places does not mean the revolt is over,” said Kamal Jabar, one of the figures of the movement dubbed the “October Revolution.”
“The protesters have lost a battle, but the movement endures and is now working to set up political organizations,” he told AFP.
The movement had called for jobs, basic services, a total overhaul of the ruling class and an end to corruption.
But it lost momentum and then ground to a halt in the spring due to an outbreak of tensions between arch-foes the US and Iran on Iraqi soil and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The protests helped usher in Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in May, but he has yet to deliver on any major reforms.
Lockdown measures imposed to stem the virus and the fall in oil prices precipitated Iraq’s tumble into its worst economic downturn and doubled the country’s poverty rate to 40 percent.
Amid the crisis, public pressure mounted to reopen Tahrir Square and Al-Jumhuriyah bridge to ease traffic in Baghdad — a city of 10 million inhabitants — and to revive trade in the center of the Arab world’s second most populated capital.
Despite reaching unprecedented numbers in late 2019 and successfully mounting pressure on elites, the anti-government protests have been largely dormant in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Activists also blamed the drop in numbers on a violent crackdown by Iraqi security forces and militia groups, as well as kidnappings and targeted assassinations.