By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Aboulenein
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The skeleton of a high-rise building overlooking Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square known as the Turkish Restaurant has become a temporary home and a bustling center for protesters staging demonstrations against Iraq’s ruling elites.
On the ground floor, a group of young men calling themselves the logistical support committee organized stacks of donated clothes, food, and other supplies such as battery packs, blankets and cigarettes on Saturday to keep the once-empty building’s new occupants well-stocked.
“We didn’t know each other but here, we became one,” said Abu Al-Baqir, wielding a large wooden stick. “We are all Iraqis.”
Dressed in combat trousers and wearing an Iraqi flag as a cape, the 35-year-old is the leader of the group, made up of 20-odd young men who occupy a corner of the building’s base.
“We need razors up here!,” shouted a young man wearing a gorilla mask from the third floor, lowering a basket. “And don’t forget the bread, we’re starving!
Groups of young men have occupied all 18 floors of the building, with its cramped unlit narrow staircases. Inside, they dance, smoke shisha, play backgammon and chant for the downfall of the ruling elites.
The mass squat started after a second wave of mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government began on the night of Oct. 24.
The demonstrators want to end the post-2003 political order, which they see as endemically corrupt and which has failed to deliver basic services. Abdul Mahdi has promised reforms and a broad cabinet reshuffle but that has so far failed to appease them.
Once a commercial center, the building was bombed in two wars and subsequently abandoned. It has been dubbed the Turkish Restaurant because of the restaurant that occupied its top floor in the 1980s.
Some protesters now call it Mount Uhud, in reference to a mountain in Medina where early Muslims battled those who sought to destroy the nascent religion. That battle ended in defeat.
Protesters said they took over the building to stop security forces who used it to shoot at them in the first wave of protests in early October. More than 250 people have been killed nationwide since the protests started.
“They tried more than once to enter, they used violence, they used tear gas, some of us died, but we did not leave this building,” said Khalil Ibrahim, a 28-year-old mechanical engineering graduate who introduced himself as the 14th floor spokesman. He has not been able to find work in three years.
“We are staying until this corrupt regime and this subservient government fall,” he said.
On the balcony of the ninth floor, groups of young people draped in Iraqi flags dangled their feet far above the swarms of tuk-tuks and protesters below.
In the distance is the Jumhuriya – or Republic – Bridge, scene of fierce clashes in recent days. It leads to the heavily fortified Green Zone which houses government buildings and foreign missions.
They watched their fellow protesters, barricaded against scrap metal and dumpsters, face security forces firing tear gas.
“I tell them today we are standing here in this building, tomorrow we will be standing in the Green Zone,” said Ahmed Salah, camped out in the building for nine days.
On the lower floors, young people handed out flyers listing their demands. Medical volunteers came to check up the wounded and distribute saline, inhalers, and masks for those in need.
“We’re here to help our children – these young people fighting for their country,” said a 44-year-old doctor who gave only her first name, Sahar. She had brought her son and daughter, also a doctor, to the protests to help distribute the $400 in supplies she brought.
“If we don’t help, who will? Neither the Ministry of Health nor our own hospitals will give us supplies to help treat wounded protesters,” she said.
Nearby, engineer Bashir Ghalib, wearing a white construction hat, was instructing young men setting up an electric grid.
“We worked with volunteers and donors to install electricity in the Turkish Restaurant in six hours while successive governments have not been able to bring light in 16 years,” he said.
(Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Frances Kerry)