BAGHDAD, Nov 26, (AP): When discontented Iraqis sought independence from British occupation in 1920, Baghdad’s most prestigious new boulevard, Rasheed Street, was the theatre of their revolt. Nearly 100 years later, the historic colonnade-lined avenue is a flashpoint in Iraq’s grassroots movement waving the banner of revolution against the country’s political system.
Once a bustling cultural hub in the heart of Baghdad, Rasheed Street has been a battle zone in recent days as security forces try to repel protesters. At least seventeen protesters have died, as Iraqi authorities used live fire, tear-gas and rubber bullet to repel them from advancing beyond a concrete barrier which has effectively cut the street in half. Protesters see Rasheed Street as key to protecting the nearby squares that are the epicenter of their movement, including Tahrir Square, where hundreds of demonstrators are camped.
But experts are concerned that damage from the fighting will reverse painstaking efforts to keep the street from falling into ruin. Zainab Mustafa, head of a local NGO Lugal which works to develop Rasheed Street, went to Tahrir recently trying to persuade protesters to move their fight elsewhere. “We are losing our heritage,” she said. “But it’s hard to make this argument to them, because the loss of human blood is more precious.”
The bloodshed marks the most recent escalation in near daily street violence since Oct 1, when thousands of protesters, mostly youth, took to the streets to decry corruption, poor services and scarcity of jobs despite Iraq’s vast oil wealth. At least 340 people have died in the security forces’ crackdown since the unrest began. Rubble is littered along the street, and scorched buildings stand precariously.
Balaclavaclad youth regularly scale the wall of concrete slabs that divides the street and goad security forces on the other side. Blood is splashed across a column covered in cracked paint. “Rasheed Street is important to us because we have to protect the area around Tahrir Square,” said Mustafa al-Maliki, a 22-year-old protester who arrived at Rasheed Street one morning this week with a group of young men.
The violence is only the latest chapter in the avenue’s storied past. It was here, in 1958 that Crown Prince Abdul Ilah’s dead body was dragged and cut to pieces in a coup d’etat lead by Gen Abd al-Karim Qassim, bringing an end to the monarchy.
The following year, Qassim, then prime minister, was traversing the street when he narrowly avoided death in a botched assassination attempt orchestrated by a young Saddam Hussein. “It was always the center for Iraqi demonstrators,” said Saadoon al-Janabi, the author of a recent Arabic-language book about the street, “From World Wars I and II, to today.”
The street has witnessed some of the most important political events in Iraq’s history, he added. Rasheed Street was the first straight, modern avenue in Baghdad’s old city, built in 1916 by the Ottomans to be a military road running north to south parallel to the Tigris River.
Named after the 5th Abbasid caliph Haroun al-Rasheed, it provided easy access to docked ships carrying supplies for the barracks. To entertain officers stationed in the garrison, cafes and cinemas were also built, said al-Janabi.