Coinciding with the first anniversary of 'Iraq's day of wrath,' in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, Deutsche Welle returns to the scene of a revolution that never was.
"We want electricity, water and jobs," was one of the slogans chanted by the thousands of protesters who gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir square in what was dubbed "Iraq's day of wrath," on February 25th, 2011. One year later, the slogans were the same but the numbers significantly lower.
"Iraqis follow sectarian loyalties so it's impossible to take any step forward together. We still lack a sense of citizenship," said Ahmed al Moussawi, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party and journalist at the Tariq al Shaab newspaper. The 23-year old could barely hide his dismay as he gazed at the roughly 100 people who had gathered at Tahrir square at the weekend.
"The revolution is under way in Iraq, but obviously at a much slower motion than in neighboring countries," added al Moussawi. "Nonetheless, the rampant corruption, the high unemployment and the dire state of our infrastructures will still drag our people to go out and demonstrate."
"Have you looked around us? There are far more soldiers and policemen than demonstrators. This has been the trend almost every Friday since last year's day of wrath," added Ahmed al Baghdadi, a high school student.
In a report issued a month after the last US troops left the country, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Iraqi authorities had suppressed freedom of expression and assembly, beaten and detained anti-government protesters and run a secret prison where suspects are tortured.
"I was kidnapped by militiamen and dragged into an ambulance on May 27. They tortured me for 12 days inside a prison at the airport under accusations of belonging to the Baath party," al Baghdadi - who was 11 when Saddam Hussein was ousted from power - told DW.
DW also got a rare testimony from Maan Thamer, a 19-year-old-student who claimed he had been arrested on March 7, 2011 and held for two days. "I was sharing a cell with a member of al Qaeda. The security officers accused me of being a spy and hit me on almost every part of my body," Thamer told DW.
"People don't attend the protests any more because they are either scared or tired, or both," he concluded.
From his office in downtown Baghdad Hassan Shaban - a lawyer and human rights activist - also blamed the divisions within the Iraqi society for the movement's failure. Still, he said he was optimistic about the future.
"Sectarianism won't succeed in Iraq because it's been fuelled by the political parties, and the ordinary people won't follow suit," Shaban told DW.
True or not, many Iraqis have also been denouncing an increasing deterioration of personal freedoms in post-Saddam Iraq.
"Journalists are under constant harassment by both militias and security forces," independent reporter Hamid al Saady told DW. "The use of the mobile phone, or even the internet can be compromising and get you in trouble," he said and admitted he's also scared about the government's intention to pass a law that would crack down on "information crimes.”
That kind of unease appears to be spreading into the political domain too. A high-ranking officer at the Ministry of Defense, who wished to remain anonymous, told DW about Iraq's growing political crisis.
"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is constantly exceeding his authority. The most recent and blatant episode was when he accused Tarek al Hasemi - Iraq's vice president - of taking part in a terrorist plot. Only an uneducated person like him would make such an unfortunate move," the ministry official said.
Al-Maliki triggered a political crisis in December when he ordered the arrest of Iraq's Sunni vice president and sought to oust one of his Sunni deputies. The Shi'ite leader has repeatedly denied such moves were politically motivated but some Sunnis say they are being increasingly marginalized from political power-sharing.
Moreover, al-Maliki holds the interior and defense portfolios, which give him direct power over the military and police. He also has sole control over security forces deployed in Baghdad through the Baghdad Operations Command, an elite outfit that is independent of the ministries.
"Al-Maliki was forced to take such responsibilities because none of the opposition candidates were acceptable," Saad Al-Muttabili, a senior member of al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, told DW.
"One of them was a former member of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service; another one was a member of al Qaeda. There were also an inexperienced candidate, a well-known thief and so on," said Al-Muttabili, who spent several years in exile in both Iran and Britain during Saddam Hussein's rule.
When asked about the alleged abuses against protesters denounced by senior NGOs, Al-Muttabili acknowledged some protesters had been "verbally mistreated and slapped on the head" during the demonstrations last year.
"After a few days they all received a formal apology from the Office of the Prime Minister and several officers were accordingly punished," Al-Muttabili said.
However, for many those apologies don't go far enough. "It's not just about the lack of freedom and general improvement. In fact, we're all actually moving backwards in many aspects," Allah Kahtan, a fine arts teacher at Baghdad's University, told DW.
"We created an illusion of hope after Saddam's fall but now we're starting to realize it was all fake," he said, one voice among many who have lost any hope for the winds of change coming from Baghdad's Tahrir square.
Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Baghdad, Iraq
Editor: Rob Mudge