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What The Life And Death Of 1 Iraqi Says About The Determination Of Young Protesters


More than 300 people have been killed protesting in Iraq, and yet the young demonstrators are determined to keep going. They're fed up with corruption and poor services, and even though the Iraqi government says it is not using lethal weapons, thousands have been wounded by live fire and tear gas. NPR's Jane Arraf reports on one protester's life and death, and just a warning - her story includes graphic descriptions of injuries.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In the modest home where Abbas Salih lived, women crowded into a reception room, hit themselves in grief. He died unmarried. The woman leading the chant says his wedding will be in paradise.

Salih was 25. He never finished high school, but he knew first aid, and he was a medical volunteer on the frontlines of the protests. He was wearing a white lab coat when he was shot in the chest by security forces.


ARRAF: Outside, in a tent next to the house, Salih's father, retired from the Iraqi army, greets mourners. He said he tried first to stop his son from going to the protests because he was afraid for him.

KHAZAAL SALIH: (Through interpreter) I said, so where are you going? He said, I am going with the protesters, with the poor, with those dying of hunger.

ARRAF: The father, Khazaal Salih, sits next to a framed photo of his son. He is considered a martyr now. In the picture, Abbas is wearing a surgical mask against the tear gas, smiling and holding up his fingers in a victory sign. Salih's is a fairly typical Iraqi family. They follow the senior religious clerics in Najaf. Abbas fought ISIS in an Iranian-backed militia. His father never dreamed his son would be killed by Iraqi security forces.

SALIH: (Through interpreter) I swear to God, my son did nothing wrong - nothing. He didn't steal anything. He helped save people, and you killed him. It's not just my son. All of them - take them to prison or shoot them in the leg or anywhere else. Don't kill them.


ARRAF: The Iraqi Government denies its security forces are deliberately killing protesters, but at the hospital where he was taken, a nurse who saw Salih tells us he was shot in the chest with a rifle.


ARRAF: At a medical station near Tahrir Square, we meet a medic who says Salih was helping him treat a wounded protester when he was killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: (Through interpreter) I was standing close to him. There a major with the security forces close to us, and I said to him, stop shooting so we can treat this wounded protester. He said, OK. OK. Finish.

ARRAF: The medic, who says he left the Iraqi army to join the protesters and doesn't want his name used, says another officer then opened fire and shot Salih in the neck in the chest.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: And then the medic says, dying is a victory for us.


ARRAF: In the street, I'm surrounded by young Iraqis who have waited their entire lives for a functioning government, for jobs, for a share of the country's oil wealth they say politicians are pocketing. They feel they have nothing to lose. Every day in Baghdad and cities in the south, protesters are killed either by live fire or tear gas canisters fired directly into the crowd.


ARRAF: Each one is considered a martyr. The government cuts off Internet for days at a time, so the protesters pass around their phones with videos - a young man with his head literally blown off, others hit directly by tear gas canisters, smoke rising from their bodies. Another waves an Iraqi flag before he's felled by a bullet. On streets where protesters are trying to force their way past riot police, it looks and sounds like a battlefield.


ARRAF: That's the crack of live gunfire down the street on a bridge that security forces are trying to drive protesters from.

The vast majority of protesters are peaceful, waving Iraqi flags. But I meet a couple of teenagers carrying bottles filled with gasoline they plan to light and throw at riot police - for self-defense, they tell me.


ARRAF: Ambulances speed by. An unemployed computer science graduate from the south of Iraq who doesn't want his name used tells me...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: They are using real bullets, and they're killing us. We don't know who is - who are them because they put a mask on. We cannot know who is this.


ARRAF: They don't know if the masked gunmen are Iraqi security forces or militiamen, but the protesters are clear who's to blame - a government that's supposed to protect them. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.