DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Baghdad, Iraq, protesters are gathering for a huge anti-government demonstration. This is the latest in spreading civil unrest that has threatened the Iraqi government. Almost 150 protesters were shot dead by security forces in previous demonstrations. In this one today, the prime minister has pledged his forces will keep people safe. And let's find out what is actually happening.
NPR's Jane Arraf is at the protest as it's gathering and joins us from Baghdad. And Jane, if you could start by just telling us what it's like there and what you're seeing.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, it's almost like there are different protests here. The main one is centered on a bridge that leads to the Green Zone, where the U.S. and other embassies are and government ministries. And that's what - why police are focused on keeping protesters out of.
So they've been firing tear gas. It is wafting all over, including to the edge of the protests, where we are. As those - who you might be hearing in the background, those are sound bombs. But it's not destroying the protesters because Friday prayer ended just recently. And there are thousands and thousands of people streaming in here. They're waving Iraqi flags and shouting slogans, calling for the government to fall.
I was just talking to a man who's in front of me. He has one leg. He lost it fighting ISIS. And I asked him what he wants. And he said, I want my country back. And that's the feeling of a lot of these people, that they've got nothing that they've been promised.
GREENE: Wow. OK. So a lot to unpack there. I just want to make it clear for our listeners. So far, the authorities have not fired any sort of lethal weapons. I mean, this has been tear gas, and you said sound booms - those are just loud sounds to deter people from gathering?
ARRAF: Yes, and tear gas to keep them away from the entrance to the Green Zone and the bridge that leads to it. There has been one unconfirmed report that a protester has been killed. But even when the tear gas was fired earlier this morning - as I was coughing from the tear gas, one of the security people came up to me - one of the security forces - and handed me a plastic robe, as they're under orders to protect the protesters. But most of this is being secured by riot police in shiny, new gear.
So far, there hasn't been any live fire, although some people have come up to me showing me shell casings. But that seems to be from previous protests. Here, in the square, where the main protest is to take place, it's been tear gas and sound bombs and no live fire.
GREENE: I just think about that dramatic thing that that man who had fought ISIS and been so injured said, that he wants his country back. What does that tell us about what people want and why they're out there?
ARRAF: It's absolutely fascinating because this is a country that didn't really go through the Arab Spring, when young people all over the Arab world rose up. As they had Saddam - Saddam was toppled by the U.S. invasion in 2003. And then they were told they could have normal lives. They would have jobs. They could get married. As they could do all - they could do what people everywhere could do. That didn't happen.
So now what they're calling for are really simple things. They want electricity. They want clean water. They want jobs. And they're fed up with this government that they say is completely corrupt. So the government, in fact, is in a - quite a precarious position.
GREENE: And so I said that people are just gathering. I mean, this is expected to go through the day and could get even bigger at some point. Like, what does it look like as this is all coming together?
ARRAF: I'm just going to move a little bit so you might be able to hear some of the chants behind me a bit. You know, that part of it is - this is quite a sedate protest at the moment. But we have not yet seen the big groups. One of them are the forces - the people loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. And there have been reports in fact that they deployed with weapons in some of the neighborhoods. When these big groups come in, this will certainly change tone. Right now, it's ordinary people gathering here from all over Iraq. But that will change.
GREENE: All right. That is the scene in Baghdad described to us by NPR's correspondent Jane Arraf. Jane, thanks so much for your reporting.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.