Sunday, February 27, 2011
February 25, Iraq's "Day of Rage"
February 25, 2011 was dubbed the “Day of Rage” by organizers in Iraq. Social and youth groups like the Youth of February 25 wanted one million people to show up in Baghdad that day. Not that many attended, but protests did occur in 18 different cities in ten provinces.
Demonstrations were noted in Baghdad, Tikrit and Yathrib in Salahaddin, Kirkuk, Riyadh, and Hawija in Tamim, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Kubaisa in Anbar, Mosul in Ninewa, Chamchamal, Sulaymaniya, Kalar, and Sayid Sadiq in Sulaymaniya, Diwaniya in Qadisiyah, Karbala in Karbala, Samarra in Salahaddin, Basra in Basra, and Kut in Wasit. Figures are not definitive, but the press reported 250 turned out in Ramadi, 100s in Kirkuk, Sulaymaniya, and Kut, 500 in Chamchamal, 1,000 in Karbala, 3,000 in Baghdad, 4,000 to 10,000 in Basra, two protests in Diwaniya with 10,000 in the morning and 1,000 in the afternoon, and 1,000 to 20,000 in Fallujah. Representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani were said to have joined the crowds in Baghdad. That happened despite the Ayatollah’s warning about participating the day before.
Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki also tried to discourage the Day of Rage. Security forces in Baghdad banned all vehicles and bicycles, which limited press coverage of the event, shut off entrances to Tahrir Square where the protest was supposed to start, and blocked pathways from the square to the Green Zone. Maliki also might have been responsible for Sistani’s warning, as there were several stories that he tried to scare Shiite clerics with warnings that Al Qaeda and Baathists were going to manipulate the demonstration for their own ends.
Organizers were hoping for a peaceful turn out, but in several cities things turned violent. In Chamchamal, Kalar and Sayid Sadiq in Sulaymaniya people attacked the offices of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In Ninewa, protesters surrounded a convoy carrying the governor Atheel Nujafi and his brother Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi, forcing them to flee. Government offices were also stormed in Basra, Tikrit, Kirkuk, and Hawija, with some of them being set afire in Mosul, and Kubaisa and Fallujah in Anbar. Police stations were set upon in Kirkuk, Hawija, and Yathrib, forcing the security forces to withdraw from the latter two.
The police responded with water canons, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. The Iraqi Society for Defense of Press Freedoms released a statement stating that dozens of members of the media were arrested during the protests. One journalist claimed that he was beaten twice in the street, then taken to the headquarters of the 11th Iraqi Army Division’s intelligence unit in Baghdad, and threatened with rape. When he was taken to his holding cell he said he saw 300 other prisoners who had been rounded up during and after the Day of Rage. Baghdad newspapers were also not able to publish because the vehicles and bicycle ban imposed on the capital stopped many of them from going to work that day. Firing into the crowd also resulted in 39 deaths and dozens and dozens of wounded. One person was killed in Kubaisa, Chamchamal, Kalar, and Basra, two in Ramadi, three in Baghdad and Hawija, four in Tikrit, six in Mosul, seven in Fallujah and Basra. Human Rights Watch demanded an immediate investigation into the actions of the security forces as a result.
On the positive side, the demonstrators were able to make their voices heard in the halls of government. Protesters called for the governors in Basra, Anbar, and Qadisiyah to resign, and the first two did, along with members of the Anbar provincial council. Premier Maliki was also said to be pressuring Ninewa’s governor to step down as well. Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a release the next day urging parliament to meet the demands of the people. He said that the Day of Rage was a warning to officials that they needed to actually run the state, improve electricity, the food ration system, create jobs, fight corruption, and end unnecessary posts and privileges for officials. Less ingenuous was Speaker Nujafi saying that he supported the demonstrators as well, and that he wanted an investigation into the day’s violence, and Maliki claiming that he would look into their demands as well.
Protests in Iraq have slowly grown in size, breadth, and intensity since they began in mid-February. They are still an amorphous group with a wide variety of demands and participants, but the call for better services and government have been the main unifying factors. Increasingly, they are demanding officials elected in the 2009 provincial elections to step down for not fulfilling their campaign promises. In the last few days, some have also begun to focus their anger upon Prime Minister Maliki as well. The problem is that the government is stuck in between a rock and hard place. They have claimed that the 2010 budget has plenty of money for the people, although some ministries have claimed that they will not have enough for their plans. Maliki has also promised that the power shortages will be solved in 12-20 months, even though others have contradicted that claim. Basically, Baghdad does not have the means or money to meet the people’s demands at this time, and making grand promises of solutions that can’t be met will only make the situation worse. This may lead to a critical mass with more and more people coming out into the streets because of hollow promises, prompting a crackdown as happened in 2009 when there were protests over power as well. The on-going demonstrations then, could pose a critical challenge to Iraq’s fledging democratic system.
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