The December 2010 to January 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired Iraqis to take to the streets. The first occurred on January 30 with two marches in Baghdad. 100 showed up in Firdos Square, where the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously pulled down during the 2003 invasion. While Iraqis wanted to show solidarity with the people of Egypt, they had their own demands as well. They called for better governance, services, and security. Another protest happened in Tahrir Square by the Green Zone, which also mentioned better services, but also demanded that the authorities not evict squatters from public buildings. The next day there was another turnout in the capital.
By the beginning of February things had escalated with the first outbreaks of violence. On February 3, 1,000 people went to the local government building in Hamza, Qadisiyah complaining about poor sanitation and other issues, and began throwing rocks at the offices. Police opened fire to disperse the crowd. By the end of the day, three in the crowd were wounded by gunshots, while four policemen were also injured. Two days later, protesters tried to storm the government building and a police station in the town, and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. Shots were again fired, leading to the first fatality in the country during the demonstrations. This marked the first time people’s anger boiled over, and guards or security forces overacted by shooting at them.
Since those events in Hamza, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented increasingly repressive measures by the authorities against regular protesters, organizers, and members of the media. On February 13, an activist said he and a group of demonstrations went to Firdos Square in the capital. Soldiers told them that they had to go to another location. The organizer got in an army vehicle to look at the new site. He was dropped off, and arrested by plainclothes men. He was later beaten, and driven to another site where he was tortured, which included the use of electric shock. He claimed that his captors wanted him to confess to being a Baathist, a charge that was then being used by government officials to discredit the protests. The activist was eventually released after a few days, and had to spend two days in a hospital afterward. He was agains arrested on the February 25 “Day of Rage,” taken to a police station, and beaten once more. Beatings and torture are common in Iraqi jails, and a common way to induce a confession. It should therefore come as no surprise that the security forces would use the same tactics against demonstrators when they were brought in. It also shows a general lack of the rule of law in Iraq, and the abuse that has continued since the Saddam days.
The government has resorted to more open forms of intimidation as well. Protesters set up a camp in Tahrir Square, Baghdad to support their Egyptian brethren. In the early morning of February 21, four cars pulled up outside the tents, and attacked the inhabitants with knives and sticks for an hour. The assailants accused the activists of being Baathists, robbed them, kidnapped three of them, and wounded four others. 30 minutes before the assault, the electricity was cut off in the square, and the security disappeared. This was a brutal act meant to break up the protesters’ tent city, and intimidate them so they would not return.
|Protesters clash with police during Feb. 25 Day of Rage, Baghdad (Agence France Presse/Getty Images)|
As happened before, events during the Day of Rage turned violent. In Mosul for example, people tried to storm the provincial council building, setting part of the offices on fire. Guards used gunfire to disperse the crowd, leading to five people being killed. In total, 39 demonstrators died across Iraq that day. Organizers would later tell Amnesty International that the combination of intimidation, arrests, beatings, shootings, and fatalities would decrease the number and frequency of demonstrations, and how many would show up in the following weeks. The government’s tactics therefore, appeared to be working to some extent.
Smaller demonstrations would continue into March and April, and so would acts to suppress them. On March 19, a man who had been publishing a newsletter in support of the protests in Baghdad had his offices surrounded by armed men in plain clothes. He took it as an act meant to scare him. In the same month, soldiers picked up a teenager after attending an event in Baghdad. He was beaten, accused of being a Baathist, and released four days later after he signed a statement saying he would not join another protest. On March 22, a leader in the February 25 Group was arrested and beaten in the capital. On April 8, plainclothes soldiers from the 11th Division arrested him again while he was coming home from a Tahrir Square protest. He was beaten again, and had a stun gun used against him repeatedly. Another organizer from the February 25 Group has been missing since he was detained on April 1. On April 13, security forces raided a union and a women’s organization where the February 25 Group was holding meetings in Baghdad. One member was arrested. These showed the authorities were going after anyone associated with the protests, whether they were supporters, leaders, or just average Iraqis who decided to come out for an assembly.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that the government is denying Iraqis their basic rights. Article 38 of the country’s constitution ensures peaceful assemblies. While that has not always happened this year, it cannot excuse the authorities’ actions. Both human rights organizations have collected plenty of evidence of the security forces targeting organizers. They, and regular protesters as well, have faced intimidation, arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture, gunfire, and deaths. Iraq also guarantees freedom of the press, but that has been denied as well for those that have chosen to cover the protests. These have all been attempts to suppress the on-going unrest. They follow Maliki’s strategy of using carrots and sticks against his opponents. The sticks are using the security forces, and the carrots have been conciliatory statements like the premier’s promise to have his ministers perform better in 100-days or be fired. The problem for Maliki is that he doesn’t want to completely ban the protests, at least not yet, because that could give ammunition to his political rivals, some of which have already taken up the cause of the protesters in their feud with Maliki, as well as cost him popular support. As a result, the repression has been applied haphazardly. They appeared to work at first after the Day of Rage, as the number of people joining assemblies went down, but the demonstrators are now making a come back in April. Not only that, but the first calls for the prime minister to step down have been voiced in Baghdad. If those calls grow, they could grain greater traction and be a real threat to Maliki’s power. He therefore has no reason to stop using these harsh tactics, which means more reports of abuse can be expected in the coming weeks and months.
Alsumaria, “Iraq government tenses up tone against pretests,” 2/24/11
- “Iraqiya accuses authority of curbing protests,” 4/16/11
Amnesty International, “Days Of Rage, Protests and Repression In Iraq,” April 2011
- “Iraqi activists’ torture allegations spark fears for detained protesters,” 3/10/11
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq Widening Crackdown on Protests,” 4/21/11
Latif, Nizar, “Iraqis step up protests in job and food crisis,” The National, 2/6/11
Ramzi, Kholoud, “protesters attacked in dawn raid,” Niqash, 2/24/11
Tawfeeq, Mohammed, “Protesters in Iraq decry lack of basic services, shortages,” CNN, 2/3/11
Al-Zaman, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “Demonstrators in Baghdad Demand Al-Maliki Go,” MEMRI Blog, 4/18/11