At least 19 people were killed in Iraq on Friday as tens of thousands defied an official curfew to join a nationwide “Day of Rage,” echoing protests that have roiled the Middle East and North Africa since January.
Despite pleas by the government and Shiite religious leaders for Iraqis to stay home, demonstrators gathered by the hundreds and thousands from Basra in the south to Mosul and Kirkuk in the north. Protesters expressed anger and rage at local leaders as well as at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, storming provincial government offices in several cities and calling for more jobs, electricity and clean water, better pensions and medical care.
Security forces used tear gas, water cannons, sound bombs and at times live bullets to disperse the crowds. Fatalities were reported in Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit and a town near Kirkuk, when security forces opened fire on demonstrators who were surrounding – or in some cases storming – government buildings. There were also clashes in Ramadi. In the southern province of Basra, about 10,000 demonstrators forced the resignation of the provincial governor. In Fallujah, protesters forced the resignation of the entire city council.
In Baghdad, where Maliki imposed a curfew that banned cars and even bicycles from the streets, people walked, often many miles, to reach the city’s Tahrir Square. Several thousand had gathered by early afternoon. Surrounded by hundreds of police, soldiers and rooftop snipers, with military helicopters buzzing overhead, protesters waved Iraqi flags and signs reading “Bring the Light Back” (a reference to the lack of electricity), “No to Corruption!” and “I’m a Peaceful Man.”
Many said they were protesting for the first time. Among them was Selma Mikahil, 48, who defiantly waved a single 1,000-dinar bill in the air. “I want to see if Maliki can accept that I live on this!” she yelled, referring to her pension, the equivalent of $120 every five months. “I want to see if his conscience accepts this!” (Washington Post)
“We want a good life like human beings, not like animals,” said Khalil Ibrahim, 44, one of about 3,000 protesters in Baghdad. (CBC)
“We don’t want to change the government, because we elected them, but we want them to get to work,” the Associated Field Press news agency quoted one 24-year-old student as saying. “We want them to enforce justice. We want them to fix roads. We want them to fix the electricity. We want them to fix the water.” (BBC)
Another man told Reuters he had walked for two hours from the poorer district of Sadr City to attend. “People are hungry. We ask the government to find job opportunities for the young. All my sons are unemployed, I’m here to express the injustice that we live in,” he said. (BBC)
Protesters circled the square and then surged down a road toward the bridge leading to Maliki’s offices, where a row of giant concrete blast walls had been erected overnight to block them. At one point, protesters began pushing against the walls, managing to open a crevice and push through. Witnesses said a soldier shot one protester in the stomach, and people began to hurl rocks over the wall after that.
Though demonstrators mostly called for reform and an end to corruptions, there were calls here and there for Maliki to step down. Many said they were shocked by the “indefinite” curfew on cars and bikes imposed late Thursday night, saying the government’s attempts to prevent them from demonstrating only motivated them more. “The government is afraid of the nation!” said engineer Sbeeh Noman, who said he walked 12 miles to reach the square. “They have found out that the people have the real power. We have it.” (Washington Post)
“No one can stop me,” said Ali Mushin, 28, an unemployed lawyer. “If you want your freedom, you have to get it, even if it’s at the end of the world.” (New York Times)
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad downplayed the protest-related violence and the impact of the curfew, saying that Iraq’s security forces “generally have not used force against peaceful protesters.” (Washington Post) The spokesman, Aaron Snipe, noted that Maliki had “affirmed” people’s right to demonstrate, and said the prime minister “also urged people to stay home due to the security threat from terror organizations… We support the Iraqi people’s right to freely express their political views, to peacefully protest, and seek redress from their government,” Snipe said. “This has been our consistent message in Iraq and throughout the region.” (Washington Post)
In Mosul, six people were killed and 21 injured after security guards opened fire on a large crowd gathered in front of the provincial council building to demand jobs and better services. Abdulwahid Ahmed, head of Al Salam Hospital, said all of the dead and injured had been shot.
In a suburb of Fallujah, six civilians were killed when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators trying to break into a local government building, according to security officials there.
In Tikrit, four protesters were killed and 15 injured when security forces shot demonstrators gathered at a provincial governor’s office. The crowd was demanding that detainees be released from prisons and chanting slogans against Maliki. “Get out! Get!” they yelled, as local authorities looked down on them from the building’s balconies. (Washington Post)
And in Hawija, near the troubled northern city of Kirkuk, police opened fire on demonstrators who eventually took control of a local police station, confiscating weapons and freeing 15 prisoners, according to a local police source, who requested anonymity. At least three people died, according to Major Abbas Mohammad Al-Jibouri, a local security officials.
Protest organizers had hoped Friday’s demonstrations would inject a fresh concept into the exercise of Iraq’s fledging democracy: peaceful expression of discontent. They insisted their goal was to demand a better government, not a new one. But the days leading up to the protests were defined by anxiety and the increasingly familiar features of Maliki’s bare-knuckle governing style.
On Tuesday night, security forces ransacked Iraq’s nonprofit Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, which is supporting the protest, carrying off computers, hard drives and files. On Wednesday, hundreds of soldiers and police began fortifying Tahrir Square, checking IDs and photographing the smattering of protesters who had begun unfurling banners reading “No to bribes!” and “The oil money is for the people!” (Washington Post)
Maliki, who had begun the week welcoming the protest, urged people in a televised speech Thursday to stay away. He said the event seemed “suspicious” and was likely to be infiltrated by al-Qaeda or perhaps loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party or “terrorists” seeking to opt it for their own purposes. (Washington Post)
Mr. Maliki’s appeals came a day after the populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr returned to Iraq from Iran and cautioned against protesting, asking Iraqis to have more patience with the government. “They are attempting to crack down on everything you have achieved, all the democratic gains, the free elections, the peaceful exchanges of power and freedom,” he said. “So I call on you, from a place of compassion, to thwart the enemy plans by not participating in the demonstrations tomorrow, because it’s suspicious and it will give rise to the voice of those who destroyed Iraq.” (New York Times)
Soldiers set up checkpoints blockading many Baghdad neighbourhoods. Near midnight Thursday, a red banner flashed across state television broadcasts announcing the curfew, a draconian measure more often deployed to deal with insurgent attacks. Still, many of the young protesters said they were undeterred, and proved it by walking for hours to get to the protest sites.
“It’s definitely a shrewd move,” said Zaid al-Ali, who was a legal adviser for the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010, dealing with constitutional and parliamentary issues. “They don’t want there to be a large turnout, because it coincides with the movements in the rest of the region, and they don’t want their people to build momentum.” Still, he said, Friday’s events would have an important bearing on Iraqi politics over the next six months. “Either there will be a large turnout, and the government will react by improving services or cracking down on the people,” he said, “or the government will continue to ignore the people and public anger will simmer.” (New York Times) Mr. Ali said that larger waves of unrest could still erupt in the months ahead, when scorching summer temperatures and regular power outages put the government’s faults on sharp display. “If you look at Iraqi history, all the revolutions and public unrest have started in the summer,” he said. “With the heat getting worse, the lack of electricity and the fact that Iraqis know how well others are living better in neighbouring countries, they will be much more likely to take to the streets. On top of that, they know about how successful protests have been in Tunisia, Egypt, and maybe Libya.” (New York Times)
The Iraqi government was formed in December, nine months after an inconclusive national election. This is the second elected government in the nearly eight years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.