On June 19, 2010 thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Basra, protesting the lack of electricity. They marched to the provincial council building, started throwing objects and setting small fires, which prompted the security forces to fire into the air. In the ensuing clashes two civilians were killed. Demonstrations then spread to Dhi Qar, Anbar, Wasit, and Diyala, and then everything ended. It wasn’t until August that another protest broke out in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar, which again led to a showdown with the police. Human Rights Watch has now revealed why Iraq quieted down after June, the Interior Ministry and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued strenuous restrictions on any public assemblies meant to block any repeat of Basra.
In late June 2010 the Interior Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office moved to stop any more demonstrations in Iraq. First, on June 25, the Ministry of Interior issued new regulations meant to limit public gatherings. They required organizers to get written approval from both the Interior Ministry and a provincial governor, and then ask for an application from the local police 72 hours before any planned protest. The Ministry also gave orders to the police to use whatever force necessary against any protests that turned violent. Around the same time the Prime Minister also put out a secret order telling the Interior Ministry to refuse permits for any planned march about the lack of services within the country. This all happened despite the Iraqi constitution protecting freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstrations.
The security forces also went after protest leaders. After the march in Basra, two organizers were arrested. A few days later an Iraqi Army unit raided the house of another organizers who was not home at the time. The soldiers detained two of his sons, and said they would not be released until the demonstration leader turned himself in. The deputy head of the Basra provincial council condemned the security forces for these actions, and claimed they had been called upon to stop.
It wasn’t until two months later that Iraqis went back to the street in an unauthorized protest. On August 21, around 200 people marched in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar against the lack of electricity again, which led to clashes with the police, water cannons being used, 40 arrests, 16 wounded, and a curfew being imposed on the city. The authorities went out a few days before warning people to stay home, but that didn’t deter them. No other demonstrations have been reported since then, despite no improvement in the power supply, so overall the new rules appear to be working.
The electricity protests that started in June 2010 sent a shiver down the spine of Baghdad. Politicians were caught up in the endless negotiations to form a new government when thousands of Iraqis in several cities across the country demanded better services. There was no way to improve the power supply, and Iraq’s leaders were not use to responding to the public. The authorities response then was predictable ban any further marches. The question is whether this was done because there was a political vacuum at the time, or because Iraq’s elite has no tolerance for public demonstrations that are critical of them. If it's the former than this was a temporary situation, but if it's the latter than some of Iraq's newfound rights exist only on paper.
Associated Press, “Iraqi riot police turn water cannons on protesters as anger spreads over outages,” 6/21/10
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Stop Blocking Demonstrations,” 9/17/10
Al-Shalchi, Hadeel and Juhi, Bushra, “Anger over power cuts leads to violence in Iraq,” Associated Press, 6/19/10