BAGHDAD (AP) — The shoes are coming off again in Iraq.
In years past, Iraqis have beaten their shoes against portraits of Saddam Hussein in a sign of anger and insult.
In 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at a ducking President George W. Bush during a press conference to vent his outrage at the U.S.-led invasion.
Now protesters in Baghdad's Tahrir Square are using their shoes again — slapping them against banners depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
More violent demonstrations of their fury have erupted in southern Iraq, where protesters have torched the headquarters of parties and militias linked to Iran and thrown firebombs at an Iranian Consulate.
The anti-government protests that have convulsed Iraq in the past month are fueled by economic grievances and are mainly directed at Iraq's own political leaders. But they have also exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran's influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shiite political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran.
The uprising in Iraq, and similar anti-government protests underway in Lebanon, pose a threat to key Iranian allies at a time when Tehran is under mounting pressure from U.S. sanctions.
"There's a lack of respect. They act like they are the sons of this country and we are beneath them," said Hassanein Ali, 35, who is from the Shiite holy city of Karbala but came to Baghdad to protest. "I feel like the Iranian Embassy controls the government and they are the ones repressing the demonstrators. I want Iran to leave."
That the protesters are mainly from Shiite areas undermines Iran's claim to be a champion of Shiites, who are a majority in Iraq and Iran but a frequently oppressed minority in the wider Muslim world.
"This has embarrassed Shiite leaders close to Iran," said Wathiq al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based analyst. "After these demonstrations, Iran may lose Iraq by losing the Shiite street."
In Tahrir Square, protesters have brandished crossed-out pictures of Khamenei and Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the architect of Iran's regional military interventions who has helped direct the response to the rallies. Demonstrators have beaten the posters with their shoes in a replay of scenes from the ouster of Saddam 16 years ago.
As in many cultures, shoes are regarded as inherently dirty in Arab countries.
Last week in Baghdad, a version of the Iranian flag was painted on the pavement with a swastika on it so protesters could walk on the image.
On Sunday night in Karbala, protesters climbed the walls of the Iranian Consulate by the light of burning tires as the crowd chanted, "The people want the fall of the regime," one of the main slogans from the 2011 Arab Spring. Security forces dispersed the protest, killing at least three people and wounding almost 20.
The protest came less than a week after masked men suspected of links to the security forces opened fire on a demonstration in the same city, killing at least 18 people.
Many protesters blame Iran and its allies for deadly violence in the southern city of Basra last year and during a wave of protests in early October, in which Iraqsecurity forces killed almost 150 people in less than a week, with snipers shooting protesters in the head and chest.
The spontaneous protests resumed on Oct. 25 and have only grown in recent days, with tens of thousands of people packing central Baghdad and holding rallies in cities across the Shiite south. The protesters have blocked roads and ports and have clashed with security forces on bridges leading to Baghdad's Green Zone, the seat of power. More than 110 people have been killed since the demonstrations resumed.
The grievances go way back. Iran, which fought a devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s, emerged as a major power broker after the American invasion of Iraq, supporting Shiite Islamist parties and militias that have dominated the country since then.
Iran also supports many of the militias that mobilized in 2014 to battle the Islamic State, gaining outsize influence as the militias fought along with security forces and U.S. troops to defeat the extremists. Those militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have since grown into a powerful political faction.
"People make a direct connection between the failure and the corruption of the Shia political establishment, both politicians and some clerics, and the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs," said Maria Fantappie, an expert on Iraq at the Brussels-based Crisis Group, a global think tank.
There has been a "drastic change" in the perception of the Popular Mobilization Forces, with many protesters viewing them as an instrument of repression, she said.
WAITING IT OUT
Lebanon has also seen huge demonstrations in recent weeks against its ruling elite and government, which is dominated by allies of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group. They included, for the first time, protests in Shiite-majority communities seen as Hezbollah strongholds.
But there, the response has been different. Lebanese security forces have acted with restraint. Hezbollah and its allies have expressed sympathy for the protesters' demands and have called for the quick formation of a new government after the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week. But they have also cast aspersions on the protesters, alleging that the U.S. and other Western powers are manipulating them.
Iran's allies in Iraq appear to have adopted a similar response.
Iraqi President Barham Salih, a member of a Kurdish party close to Iran, said he will approve early elections once a new electoral law is enacted. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, another veteran politician, has expressed support for the protesters but urged them to reopen roads so life can get back to normal.
Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, said this week that the U.S. and other nations are working to "incite strife and chaos."
The Trump administration, which has expressed support for the protests in Iraq, could inadvertently aid that narrative by linking the protests to its own efforts to curb Iran's influence. That could provoke a similar backlash against the U.S., which still has thousands of troops in Iraq and is widely seen as having meddled in the country's affairs.
Political leaders in Iraq and Lebanon have yet to offer concrete proposals to meet protesters' demands. The process of forming a new government in either country would take months, and without fundamental change would leave the samepolitical factions in power.
Iran's allies appear to be betting that as the weeks and months go by, the public will grow frustrated at disruptions to daily life and the protests will gradually fizzle out.
Saddam Mohsen, a Baghdad resident, said the closure of three central bridges after clashes has worsened the city's already terrible traffic, causing "huge problems."
"Shutting down three bridges means shutting down half of Baghdad," he said.
Trees around the perimeter of Zorinsky Lake Park will be cut down over the next few years as a result of a directive from Washington.
The 30-foot corridor is expected to total about 40 acres of trees.
The plan by the Army Corps of Engineers has angered some property owners, while others welcome it.
The federal government owns the land where the lake, built for flood control, is situated. The City of Omaha operates and maintains the park.
The trees are being removed to better delineate the park’s boundaries.
A number of homeowners around the lake say they are stunned by the decision. The loss of trees around the park will irreparably harm their views, they say, as well as lower their property values, damage habitat and alter the natural qualities of a park that the public has come to love.
“When you step onto those trails, it’s almost like being in another world; it’s very majestic and natural,” said Mickey Decock, whose home abuts the park. “I don’t understand why they would rush to cut down trees. This isn’t just about our property and how this affects us. It affects everybody.”
Neighboring landowners said they only learned about the plans in September. The contract for tree removal has been awarded, and removal is expected to start at the end of November or early December, according to the corps.
The primary reason for the tree removal is to prevent unauthorized uses of the parkland, said David Sobczyk, project manager at the corps. For the most part, those unauthorized uses are fences that extend onto park property, he said. But they also include some retaining walls, treehouses, birdbaths, benches and gardens that some property owners have installed since the park opened in 1993.
“It’s public land,” Sobczyk said. “We can’t allow anything to happen on that property for the sole benefit of any private entity.”
The first contract calls for 1 mile to be cleared between 156th and 168th Streets by April. Dreamscapes, a company based in Enid, Oklahoma, is being paid $254,250 for the work. Stumps will be ground to 6 inches below the soil surface, and mixed grasses will be planted in the clearings.
Sobczyk estimates that the entire project will take two to four years. About 70% of the perimeter will need tree removal. Based on the first mile, the entire project could cost between $1 million and $2 million.
That seems like an excessive amount of tax dollars to spend because treehouses and birdbaths have been installed on parkland, said homeowner Eric Watts, who would lose a buffer of evergreens and mature shade trees.
“Why doesn’t (the corps) go to people and say, ‘Get rid of your garden, get rid of your treehouse?’ ” he asked. “I think everybody would go along with that rather than lose the trees.”
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Sobczyk said a corps contractor has counted about 250 possible “encroachments” onto federal property.
One reason for the high number may that the boundary fence around the park doesn’t run along the actual boundary but sits 3 to 5 feet inside the park, and sometimes more.
Not everyone opposes the project.
Homeowner Joel Alperson said the view from his home has deteriorated as years of uncontrolled growth has taken place. He and a neighbor have paid for tree trimming and other maintenance along their property line because trees, shrubs and grasses encroached onto their land.
“From my standpoint, the growth and vegetation has been largely uncontrolled,” he said. “If they don’t do this, I can’t imagine how the city will be able to operate around the lake.”
Mark Underwood also welcomes the tree removal for many reasons: Dead trees are a fire hazard, limbs drop into the family’s yard and a prowler even scaled a tree to get into their yard. The thicket behind their yard is a place where people drink and some people go to the bathroom.
“I’d be in favor of restoring this area to tall grass prairie, (which is) as beneficial to other species of wildlife as woodlands are to others,” he said.
Under the contract the city has with the corps, the city is responsible for maintaining the perimeter.
The clearing of a 30-foot-wide corridor around the 10-mile perimeter of the park will make it possible for the Parks and Recreation Department to mow and maintain the boundary, federal and local officials say.
And, according to Omaha Parks Director Brook Bench, the change will create a new amenity at the heavily used park — a grassy corridor for horseback riding, snowshoeing, mountain biking, jogging and dog walking.
Bench said the additional mowing the city will have to do won’t be an added expense for the Parks Department. The department has a caretaker who lives at Zorinsky, and mowing the perimeter will be added to his duties, Bench said. The city plans to mow the corridor every 30 days, he said.
The 1,000-acre park includes a 255-acre lake, with the rest of the land being a mix of woods, grassy areas and park amenities. More than 380 properties ring the park, Sobczyk said.
According to a corps map, only a few short stretches of the park’s paved trails might have trees removed. Much more affected will be footpaths through the perimeter woods that provide a shaded, tranquil route for runners and walkers. And while the tree removal will create a grassy strip for hiking and biking, it will be an area exposed to the sun and directly along the backyards of homeowners.
That, too, concerns property owners like Watts.
“We’re worried about the privacy aspect,” he said, if the thick wall of evergreens behind his home is replaced by bikers, hikers and horses.
Decock said the tree removal will also be detrimental to the nearby Bauermeister Prairie, one of the few native prairies in the Omaha metro area.
Zorinsky is the first of more than a dozen federally owned dam sites in Nebraska where tree removal will take place, Sobczyk said. Others include Wehrspann and Standing Bear Lakes in Omaha and Holmes Lake in Lincoln. Sobczyk said Zorinsky was picked to be first because of the dense housing around it.
While some type of boundary protection is required by corps regulation, the 30-foot width is based on several factors. The city’s tractor can mow 15 feet at a time, so the width of the strip will allow the caretaker to mow the strip in an up-and-back trip. It will also allow the city to get heavy equipment into the corridor to remove problem trees.
“Our stance is, if the corps is going to do this, make it so that we can maintain it,” Bench said.
Sobczyk said the national impetus for better maintenance of 600-plus federal dam sites began after significant problems developed elsewhere. At Rough River Lake in Kentucky, a developer built an unauthorized subdivision on federal land around a dam. Homes have also encroached onto federal land at Gavins Point Dam in Nebraska and Table Rock Lake in Missouri, he said.
It’s not clear, based on national corps regulations, that tree removal is required to delineate a boundary.
A corps document published in the spring calls for the agency to be proactive in protecting its boundaries but notes that the agency could also use public education, signs, fences and boundary markers.
Reece Nelson, a natural resources specialist at the corps, said those other methods haven’t proven effective at Zorinsky. Additionally, they don’t provide the access needed to maintain the park and protect adjacent private property from damage from falling trees.
Watts said he and his neighbors paid 50% more for the lots their homes sit on because the land abuts the park and provides nice views, habitat and privacy.
“Everybody I’ve talked to assumes it will lower their property values,” he said. “Our trees come right up to our line, and that’s a value.”
Decock said the city and corps need to be more thoughtful about what’s being done.
“Some of these trees may be 70 years old,” she said. “They are beautiful and functional and home to lots of critters. This isn’t like mowing grass that will come back. I will never live to see these trees come back.”
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