Protesters chant slogans in support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as they carry a large national flag during a rally in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Friday's protesters were joined for the first time by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical, anti-American Shiite cleric. The protesters have staged weekly rallies since last month to press demands for reforms, better services and an end to corruption. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) Image Credit: AP

Baghdad: Surrounded by the clamor of protest - a sea of Iraqi flags, vendors selling coffee and melon drinks, protesters singing the national anthem and railing against politicians - two friends paused and described their dreams.

“I want to find a job opportunity,” said one of them, Yasir Abdul Rahman, 21, who recently earned an engineering degree but remains unemployed. “I want to build a country. I want an opportunity.”

His friend Hussain Ali, 22, quit university to support his family and now works as a taxi driver. He said that even the specter of bombings - any public space in this city is fraught with danger - would not keep him away from the square.

“We are only thinking of reforms,” he said. “If you want to change, you have to sacrifice yourself.”

For five Fridays now, thousands of mostly, but not entirely, youthful and secular Iraqis have gathered in central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand change. At first, the demands were small, like improving electricity amid a summer heat wave. But the list has grown longer and more complex: Fix the judiciary, hold corrupt officials accountable, get religion out of politics.

The protests have come to overshadow the fight against Daesh, Iraq’s main preoccupation over the past year. Change, at least on paper, came quickly. Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi announced a set of sweeping measures to placate the protesters. He called for the elimination of several senior government positions, including the three vice presidencies; the end of sectarian quotas in politics; the reduction of ministries; and a new drive to eliminate corruption.

Several weeks later, few of the measures, aside from the firing of three deputy prime ministers and a few ministers, have been carried out, and many protesters now say they are pessimistic about real change.

“We haven’t noticed anything yet,” said Ali Farras, 25, who joined the protests on Friday. “It is just ink on paper.”

Away from the agitation of the streets are the political intrigues of the Green Zone, the cloistered and fortified enclave here for politicians and ambassadors. There officials say Al Abadi may have made promises that will prove impossible to keep, given the entrenched sectarianism and corruption in the political system. There, officials say, the entrenched sectarianism and corruption in the political system may make it impossible for Al Abadi to keep his promises.

“He can make all the directives on Earth, but who will implement them?” said one Iraqi lawmaker close to Al Abadi who spoke anonymously to avoid angering the prime minister. Yet if Al Abadi succeeds in eliminating sectarian and party quotas from Iraqi politics, the lawmaker said, he will become “a national hero.”

The protests - and the support for them from members of the Shiite religious establishment in the holy city of Najaf, whose word is final for many among the country’s Shiite majority - have provided an opportunity, as well as political cover, for Al Abadi to tackle some of the country’s most vexing problems.

Since the protests began, Iraqis have noticed a modest improvement in electricity, but not much else.

“Apart from that, he hasn’t really changed anything for the people in the street,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst based in London and Baghdad who sometimes advises the government. “He has to meet people’s demands, but he can’t go too fast and upset the political elite.”

There is also concern that Shiite militia leaders who are close to Iran could exploit the anger in the streets to gain more power. The Shiite militias have become increasingly popular in Iraq because their forces have had success in fighting Daesh and they have been Al Abadi’s chief rivals in an intra-Shiite struggle for power.

Already, the ranks of the protesters include many young men who are members of the militias.

“If the current reforms prove little more than window dressing, they will mean the end of the political life of the prime minister and large portions of the political class,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. “In their place, militia commanders would ride popular anger and military supremacy to power.

“There are many precedents in Iraq’s history,” the report continued. “It was, after all, only a year ago that [Daesh] used Sunni anger and a lightning military strike to impose repressive rule in large parts of the country.”

Still, for the first time in a long time Iraqis have been given the space to voice grievances. As in Beirut, where piles of trash on city streets incited popular demonstrations, the protests here have evolved into a broader rebuke of the political establishment. Under orders to treat the gatherings with kid gloves, the Iraqi security forces have protected the protesters rather than shoot them, as they did in 2011 when Iraqis, after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, sought to foment their own revolution.

“People are finally starting to express their opinions,” said 1st Lt. Ali Thamir, a police officer on duty at Tahrir on a recent Friday. “It’s a really great experience for the people. The security forces are with the people. We are protecting them.”

Thamir continued: “The people are tired. Lack of services. Corruption. Electricity. The government is fragile.”

He said the protesters should be patient: “Al Abadi is not Ali Baba with a magic lamp. He needs some time.”

On a deeper level, the demonstrations represent a popular reckoning with the American legacy here, with the corrupt and dysfunctional political system that has been in place since U.S. forces invaded in 2003.

For many of the young protesters, the invasion is the most formative event of their lives. When American bombs began falling, Abdul Rahman said, “it was terrifying, but my parents told me it was good.”

“We thought we would be freed,” he added. “They knocked out Saddam and brought a hundred Saddams.”

His friend, Ali, said emphatically, “This protest was established to demolish what the Americans set up.”

Most of all, many of the protesters say, they want to see high-level officials charged with corruption. This is reflected in the frequent chants at Tahrir for former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to face trial. Al Maliki was replaced last summer amid international calls for a more inclusive leader in the face of the offensive by Daesh, which now controls about a third of the country.

“The problem is the politicians are not good people,” Abdul Sadr Aboud, 65, said as he stood in Tahrir Square one recent Friday evening. He said he would leave Iraq if only he could afford to pay a smuggler to get him to Europe.

“They stole our money,” he said of politicians, adding: “They didn’t give a share of the oil to the people.”

On Saddoun Street, a commercial thoroughfare that connects with Tahrir Square, is an old tailoring shop that has been in Mwafaq Ali’s family since the 1950s. The shop has been outfitting Iraq’s political elite for decades. Since the new class of leaders was ushered in after 2003, Ali has noticed a trend: Many of his customers seem to be getting richer.

Early on, he said, if a politician could afford one of his customised suits, it was usually made of cheap fabric from China. Now, he said, politicians come in to buy several at a time and demand expensive European fabrics, blended from merino wool, cashmere and silk.

Speaking of one unnamed official who has been in government for more than a decade, he said: “First, he was just coming to look. He’d just say hello and goodbye, because he couldn’t afford it. Then he’d buy one suit. And then 10.”

Even with this windfall, Ali said he supported the protesters.

“It’s not good if I just look after myself,” he said. “I support the reforms, even if it hurts my business.”