Friday, April 22, 2011

Iraq’s Military Adds New Restrictions On Protesters

Iraq’s government has come under increasing pressure from weekly protests that have occurred throughout the country. They have been going on for two months straight now. Even though only a few hundred have shown up at each event, they have expressed common complaints about the country such as the lack of jobs and services. Some are now calling for the newly formed government to step down as well. In response, the authorities have increasingly cracked down on the demonstrators. The latest example of that occurred in early April when the military announced new regulations on protests in Baghdad.

On April 13, 2011, the Baghdad Operations Command announced that it was restricting all demonstrations in the capital to three sports venues. Those were Shaab, Kashafa, and Zawra stadiums. Previously, there were weekly marches to Tahrir Square, which is in the center of the city near the Green Zone. The Command’s spokesman, General Qassim Atta claimed that the new rules were in response to merchants who complained that the assemblies were costing them money. Previously, the government had used carrots, such as promises to reform the ministries, and sticks, like force and intimidation, to cajole the protesters. This was the first time that the authorities officially issued orders limiting where assemblies could happen.

The regulations did not go down well with activists and certain political parties. Organizers, intellectuals, and reporters quickly condemned the Baghdad Operations Command for trying to stomp on the people’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement accused the government of trying to put an end to the demonstrations. Political critics and the press could be expected to come out against these orders. Allawi’s list has also become the only major party to support the protesters, especially because it allows them to attack Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, their main rival.
Demonstrators defying the new government orders in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, April 15, 2011 (Agence France Presse)
Organizers immediately challenged the military on April 15, when there was another gathering at Tahrir Square. The event marked a noted change in demands, that had previously focused upon corruption, and the lack of jobs and services. On April 15, people asked for Premier Maliki to step down, and for the release of long-term prisoners. Demonstrators chanted slogans such as, “Leave Maliki Leave,” and the “Wind of change has arrived.” After two hours, the police arrived, and broke up the assembly. A spokesman fro the Baghdad Operations Command stated that legal action would be taken against the protesters for breaking the new regulations.

Demonstrations have occurred every day in Iraq since the middle of February. They have happened in every region from the Kurdish north, to western Anbar, to central Baghdad, to southern Basra. This has put the flame to the feet of Prime Minister Maliki, who is busy trying to outmaneuver his rivals. At first, the premier said he believed in the right to gather, and said that the people had legitimate complaints. Quickly however, he changed his tune, and began using the security forces against the protesters and the press to intimidate them. This has now become official policy with the new Baghdad Operations Command orders. Organizers have not listened, and immediately returned to Tahrir Square. Now the ball is back in the government’s court. Will they try to force people into the three stadiums? Will they take legal action and try to send protesters to jail for failing to comply? Will it lead to greater use of force against those that continue to try to meet at Tahrir Square? Given Maliki’s recent record, it’s likely that the authorities will move towards greater repression rather than trying to address any calls for reform.

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Iraq restricts protests to three Baghdad stadiums,” 4/13/11

Alsumaria, “Baghdad Protesters Call Maliki to Step Down,” 4/15/11
- “Iraqiya accuses authority of curbing protests,” 4/16/11

Mandalawi, Bashar, “Tahrir protesters: Maliki must go,” AK News, 4/16/11

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “Iraqis Condemn Decision To Limit Demonstrations to Two Stadiums,” MEMRI Blog, 4/15/11

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