Monday, February 7, 2011

Protests Return To Iraq Inspired By Events In Tunisia And Egypt

In the last week or so, small demonstrations have spontaneously broken out in several sections of Iraq. A few were in solidarity with the events occurring in Tunisia and Egypt, but all ended up calling on politicians to provide jobs, services, and to fight corruption.These protests are quickly spreading, and could pose a serious challenge to the government as it lacks the will and means to address the public’s complaints.

The first reported incidents were at the very end of January, 2011. On January 30, 200 people gathered in two parts of Baghdad to support the events in Egypt. The next day, there were protests in Husseiniya and outside the Green Zone. At the latter event, participants demanded better services and for the government to not evict squatters from government property. On February 4, 3,000 demonstrated in Diwaniya, Qadisiyah over the lack of jobs and services. That same day there were three more protests in the capital. One was in central Baghdad with around 200 attending who wanted to show solidarity with Egypt and Tunisia. They also condemned the government’s recent closures of liquor stores, and called for better services. Husseiniya saw another protest over electricity, water, and corruption as well. On February 5, police in Najaf broke up people trying to march in support of Egyptians after the governor refused to give them permission. On February 6, 250 were seen in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sham, and 1,000 in Doub al-Sham in Diyala. 100-1,500 went out into the streets of Basra demanding better services, and for the governor and members of the provincial council to resign. Riot police met them, but a small delegation was able to meet with officials to voice their demands for electricity, jobs, and to fight crime and corruption. A similar event took place in Ramadi where people demanded the governor and head of the provincial council to step down over the lack of services, random arrests, unemployment, and corruption. Mosul was also said to be taking part in the civil demonstrations. 

Hamza in Diwaniya has seen the most sustained and violent protests in the country. From February 3 to 5 residents  marched on the local council building. On the first day around 1,000 people gathered in the town, and threw rocks, which led the police to fire shots to disperse the crowd. That ended up wounding three, with four more injured in scuffles with the authorities. Local leaders had to be called out that day to calm the crowd and end the protest. On February 5, the main road to Diwaniya was closed with a roadblock, while others stormed the government building again and a police station. This time people were not only throwing rocks, but Molotov cocktails as well. The police fired again, which reportedly killed one, and injured four others. While the events in the rest of the Middle East obviously had an affect upon Iraqis, the country’s own set of social problems came to the fore in almost all of these situations.

The demonstrators have met with some support from clerics as well. On February 4, several imams during Friday prayers warned politicians that they needed to consider the repercussions of the events going on in the rest of the region. Abdul Mahdi al-Karabani, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Sistani said that there was no social justice in Iraq. A sheikh in Kirkuk warned that protests could spread, while an imam in Kufa, Najaf condemned the police shootings in Hamza. Others talked about the on going poverty and corruption in government. If more mosques join in on these criticisms, it could pose a real quandary for Baghdad as it will be hearing it from both the street, and the religious establishment.

The heat has already reached Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He announced on February 5 that he was cutting his salary in half. He urged other politicians to do the same. He also said that he would not run for a third term, although he later amended that statement, and then offered to raise citizens' ration cards. He later accused  his political rivals for organizing some of the protests. Those token gestures are unlikely to win much praise. Pay for politicians dwarfs those of the average Iraqi, and they get lavish expenses as well for security, cars, their own generators, etc. Maliki also quickly backpedaled on his comment that he would not run again in the next elections, ration cards do not address the core demands of the public, and his attack upon other parties showed that he was trying to defer blame.

This is all very similar to last year when people took to the streets over the lack of electricity. Those started in Basra, but then quickly spread to several other provinces before the Prime Minister ordered them banned. Recently, on January 17, they returned when people blocked the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway in Tamim. Recent polling shows that two-thirds of respondents said that services were the most important issue facing Iraq, and that they felt the supply of electricity, water, etc., had gotten worse. The government was caught off guard by these protests, and could do nothing to alleviate the public’s anger. Maliki and others said it would take several years for example, to increase the nation’s power supply, and even then, officials would later say that demand would continue to outstrip supply. The improved security situation has changed the focus for the average Iraqi away from violence to services. It has also allowed people to feel safe enough to publicly voice their discontent without fear of being attacked by militants.

The problem for Iraq is that Baghdad cannot respond to these demands. The new ruling coalition has been put together, but all of the ministers haven’t even been named, and only four out of 26 parliamentary committees have chairmen. The government was put together to include all of the major parties in a national unity regime. That’s good for looks and dividing up the spoils of power, but not for actually running the country. Trying to be inclusive was made at the cost of competence. That means no immediate improvement in services, and likely more protests unless Maliki tries to ban them again

Pictures Of Protesters, February 6, 2011

Baghdad (Associated Press)
Basra (Reuters)
Basra (Reuters)
Basra (Reuters)
Basra (Reuters)

Basra (Reuters)

Bab al-Sham (Reuters)
Bab al-Sham (Reuters)
Bab al-Sham (Reuters)
Bab al-Sham (Reuters)

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Abdul-Rahman, Mohammed, “KBC allocated second parliamentary committee,” AK News, 2/2/11

Agence France Presse, “Iraq not immune from Arab anger: clerics,” 2/4/11

Alsumaria, "Maliki to compensate for Iraqis ration cards," 2/7/11

Associated Press, “Iraqis seize on Egyptian unrest in protests,” 2/4/11

Aswat al-Iraq, “3,000 persons go to street in Diwaniya to improve services,” 2/4/11
- “Anbar council holds emergency meeting after Ramadi protest, 2/6/11

Faruqi, Anwar, “Iraq’s largest hydropower dam grinds to halt,” Agence France Presse, 1/27/11

Juhi, Bushra, “Electricity-starved Iraqis’ obsession: generators,” Associated Press, 6/26/10

Kami, Aseel, “Iraqis demonstrate over lack of basic services,” Reuters, 2/6/11

Lando, Ben and Ammar, Munaf, "Iraq's Maliki Doesn't Rule Out Third Term," Wall Street Journal, 2/6/11

Latif, Nizar, “Iraqis step up protests in job and food crisis,” The National, 2/6/11

Shadid, Anthony, “Iraq’s Last Patriot,” New York Times, 2/4/11

Sly, Liz, “Iraq’s Maliki says he won’t seek 3rd term, in possible reverberations from Egypt,” Washington Post, 2/5/11

Tawfeeq, Mohammed, “Amid Egypt-inspired unrest, Iraqi prime minister cuts salary in half,” CNN, 2/5/11
- “Protesters in Iraq decry lack of basic services, shortages,” CNN, 2/3/11

1 comment:

Harry Barnes said...

We are all in your debt for your continuing first rate coverage of events in Iraq.