Protesters at Tahrir Square. Rudaw photo.
BAGHDAD, Iraq – ”You see this?” says the taxi driver as he points to a grimy two-storey building enclosed by tall concrete walls that are thought to protect it from possible bombings in the Iraqi capital.
“This was built by Saddam,” he explains, as we pass Baghdad’s downtown neighborhoods and continue our trip to Tahrir Square, where angry protesters have gathered over the past months and threatened to take matters in their own hands if Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government does not deal with corruption.
Last week, the embattled prime minister announced a partial reshuffle of his cabinet.
Iraq has repeatedly topped the list of the least transparent nations in the past decade, where widespread corruption has made it almost impossible to run the government.
According to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) reported by Transparency International, Iraq was the least transparent country in 2007 of the total of 178 nations listed in the index, followed by Afghanistan and Somalia.
Iraq was still among the 16 most corrupt nations in last year’s CPI ranking.
Perhaps this is partly the reason why people, both Shiites and Sunnis, in the Iraqi capital speak almost tenderly about the nostalgic past: Iraq’s genocidal ruler Saddam Hussein turned Baghdad into a leading city among Arab capitals with highly modern infrastructure, but mostly at the expense of other cities in the country.
“This street was as clean as a piece of crystal,” the driver says as we approach the square. “Saddam took Hugo Chavez here and walked down this street with him,” he says, referring to the late Venezuelan leader who visited Iraq in early 2000.
At Tahrir Square, furious demonstrators have prepared hanging ropes and threatened to execute any corrupt official that their flamboyant leader Muqtada al-Sadr finds guilty of embezzlement.
The powerful young Shiite cleric has already ordered the arrest of one of his own ranking officials, charging him with corruption.
“Our master Muqtada is in Baghdad now and if he allows us we will begin with this bank and give the money to the people,” says an armed man in military uniform, as he points to the nearby Al-Rafidain building, Iraq’s largest investment bank.
Sadr, whose Ahrar party has 34 seats in the Iraqi parliament and its own military security, left his holy hometown of Najaf last month and joined his faithful supporters in Tahrir Squre to make sure the government implements his proposed reform plans.
Tahrir, which means freedom and was renamed after Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, is only minutes away from the heavily fortified Green Zone, where almost all senior officials, including the prime minister and the president, live.
“Saddam built this neighborhood and these people have occupied it,” another protester says, referring to government officials who live in the Green Zone, which contains dozens of luxury palaces and hotels.
“Cruel decisions were made in these palaces when Saddam was in charge,” another protester intervenes. “And now Iraq’s riches are being stolen by people in the same palaces,” he says.
With over $700 billion of revenues from oil exports since 2003, Iraq is considered a wealthy nation, not only regionally but also according to world standards. Nonetheless, the country is still suffering from lack of basic services such as electricity and healthcare.
“No one knows where the money is, it’s probably not even in the country,” a young university student says.
“You’ll see how we put handcuffs on these criminals and throw them in the garbage bin of history,” the young demonstrator says before joining the crowd again and loudly chanting, “Protest today; revolt tomorrow.”