Monday, September 12, 2011

National Protests Return To Iraq On September 9

On September 9, 2011, protests occurred throughout Iraq for the first time in over six months. There were events in ten cities across nine of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, including Baghdad, Qadisiyah, Babil, Basra, Diyala, Anbar, Muthanna, Maysan, and Najaf. It was called “Friday of Denouncement of Bad Services and Suppression of Freedoms.” Demonstrations started in the country back at the end of January, but tapered off in the face of a concerted effort by the government to break them up. Since then, protests have continued, but they have been very small. Activists were finally able to organize nation wide assemblies calling for the government to reform, but it’s unclear whether they will have any long-term impact.

Baghdad’s Tahrir Square saw the largest gathering of the day. Between 4,000-5,000 people were reported in attendance. They came in four separate processions, each with their own set of demands. Those included better services, early elections, for the government to step down, for Kuwait to stop building its Mubarak port, for Iran and Turkey to stop shelling Kurdistan, to end corruption, and against Speaker Osama Nujafi and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi visiting Saudi Arabia. The last to arrive condemned the murder of journalist and government critic Hadi al-Mahdi, who was shot the night before. Media coverage of the event was limited because of the heavy security presence. All of the connecting roads for example, were blocked making it difficult for television stations and their trucks to enter the square. Some reporters also claimed that the security forces confiscated their camera equipment as they went through various checkpoints. Tahrir Square has seen protests every week since the beginning of the year. It hasn’t been since those early months that such a large crowd was seen there.

Hundreds of other people were seen across the country as well. Just outside Baghdad in Abu Ghraib, the security forces broke up a crowd. 500 showed up in Basra where they marched to the provincial council building. 500 also demonstrated in Diwaniya in Qadisiyah province, 300-750 were seen in Hillah in Babil, hundreds were in Fallujah, Anbar, 100 demonstrated in Najaf, and unknown numbers were in Wasit’s Kut, Muthanna’s Samawa, and Maysan governorate. Their demands and complaints were all similar to those heard in Baghdad including corruption, new elections, decrying the death of Hadi al-Mahdi, a U.S. troop withdrawal, jobs, services, for local governors and provincial councils to step down, for Kuwait to stop building its Mubarak Port, for the United Nations to stop Iranian and Turkish shelling of the border, and for a U.S. withdrawal. Some activists also threatened sit-ins and continued protests if their demands were not met. Cities outside of Baghdad have seen occasional protests, but not with so many participants and across so many parts of the country since the beginning of the year.

Various activist groups, non-governmental organizations, and political parties organized the day’s events. They had been calling for the protests since the middle of August, using Facebook and media announcements to get the message out. Some of those involved were Change Youth, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Free Democratic Movement, and the Democratic Trend. This was a great achievement for them because before they’d only been able to bring out a few dozen people each week in Baghdad. Now thousands heeded their calls.

Moqtada al-Sadr also chimed in, once against trying to appropriate the demonstrations. On September 8, he called for new protests, and the next day he said that the people had the right to assemble. He called for the government to create new jobs, distribute oil profits to the people, and to reform itself as well. Since early in the year, Sadr has tried to take over the demonstrations. At first, he supported them, and then he barred his followers from joining. In August, he said his movement would hold their own marches, but then he backed off when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressured him. So far, no one in his movement has openly come out into the streets, so his latest statements are just another attempt to claim that he is with the protesters, while doing nothing substantial.

The problem for the activists is that they have not been able to sustain their effort. At first, they held assemblies every week for two months. Then the authorities cracked down on them, while offering reforms, and the crowds largely disappeared. There are still protests every Friday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, but they are very small. Without constant effort they will not have any power to pressure the government. That added with the fact that the Prime Minister Maliki has shown no willingness to do anything but make empty promises means that September 9’s events will likely have no long-term affect. The politicians are largely immune to public pressure anyway, and are caught up in their own petty arguments rather than concerned about the public’s needs. The elite know that there are all kinds of shortages and major problems affecting the country, but either do nothing or lack the authority to enact any real change. That’s the sad reality of present day Iraq. Only massive and sustained demonstrations by the public could break this status quo, but organizers have not been able to make that a reality so far. The demonstrations, and their lack of affect have thus exposed the limits of Iraq’s democracy.
Tahrir Square, Baghdad (Radio Free Iraq)
Basra (Radio Free Iraq)
Maysan province (Sotaliraq)
Najaf (Radio Free Iraq)
Samawa (Radio Free Iraq)
Protesters in Baghdad carrying photos of slain journalist Hadi al-Mahdi


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Walid, Khalid, “Demonstration in Tahrir Square in Baghdad,” Radio Free Iraq, 9/9/11

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