February 2012 was the one-year anniversary of major protests across Iraq. Activists in Baghdad and Sulaymaniya were planning major events to mark the event. They were met with a wave of police. According to Human Rights Watch, both demonstrators and reporters were harassed, beaten, and arrested in those two cities. The central and Kurdish governments eventually turned to force to suppress the original protest movement in 2011, and were determined to not see it return this year.
|A member of the Kurdish watchdog group Metro Center to Defend Journalists is arrested after taking photos of the protest in Sulaymaniya, Feb. 17, 2012 (Metrography)|
On February 17, 2012, youth groups in Sulaymaniya City attempted to meet in Saray Square to mark the protests that started there one year ago. Around 150-200 people showed up that morning, and walked to the center of the city to meet in the square. There were more security forces in attendance than activists. People dressed like bystanders then descended upon the crowd, and began beating them and several reporters that were trying to cover the event. The attack became indiscriminate. A lawyer for example, who was calling a taxi, was beat by several men. A member of the media watchdog group Metro Center to Defend Journalists had his camera taken, and was then assaulted. When another Metro member tried to stop the beating, he was attacked, and taken away with the other. An American photographer was kicked for taking pictures of the incident with the two Metro staffers. He then had his camera and phone taken, was detained, taken to the local offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which runs Sulaymaniya province, and told that he was being deported. Reporters from KNN and NRT TV, and several others were also arrested. Eventually, the activists were forced into one part of the square where they were pushed into a former police station, arrested, and questioned. These attacks appeared to have stifled most of the coverage of the day’s events, meaning that the government intimidation campaign worked. The Kurdish ruling parties, and especially the PUK, came under tremendous pressure when protests originally broke out in Sulaymaniya in February 2011. Thousands of young people got together every day for two months straight in the city, demanding government reforms. There were violent incidents from the beginning, such as on February 17, when some demonstrators marched to the local headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), threw rocks, were then shot at by security guards, resulting in the death of a 15-year old boy in the process. There were other sporadic attacks upon activists and media outlets, culminating in the final crackdown in April when all of the protesters were cleared from the streets, and journalists were chased away, and attacked. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) promised that it would carry out a series of political changes as a result of the activists, but nothing substantive has happened a year later.
|Several hundred people were able to brave the security forces and protest in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Feb. 25, 2012 (Getty Images)|
A similar scenario played out in Baghdad. Several groups were planning on a large demonstration in the capital, perhaps even topped off by a long-term sit-in movement (1) to press their demands for political reforms, electricity, jobs, and fighting corruption with the government. When protesters showed up, they found many of the access points to Tahrir Square, the site of the day’s activities, blocked by security forces. According to several people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the police were spreading rumors to the activists that a bomb had gone off in the square, that terrorists were waiting for them, that there was a list of people who had arrest warrants for them amongst the crowd, and other stories to try to keep them out. Despite these efforts, 600-1,000 people did make it into Tahrir. Like in Kurdistan, reporters who were trying to cover the event were arrested, beat, and had their equipment taken from them. These tactics have been in place for months now as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to contain, intimidate, and break-up the protest movement. That meant the authorities were fully prepared for this anniversary.
Iraq claims that it is one of the only democracies in the Middle East. It has held several elections, and has a parliament and a premier. Its’ politics and institutions are very immature however, and Iraq’s new generation of leaders have shown little patience for anyone that questions them. That was shown in the summer of 2010 when Maliki banned protests over the lack of electricity, and then during the following year when both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government cracked down on a new wave of demonstrators originally inspired by the Arab Spring, which was then spreading across the region. Unlike those other countries, Iraqis were not calling for the government to be overthrown, but rather for better rule and services. While many promises were made to reform their practices, the ruling parties ultimately turned to the security forces to smother the activists once again showing that holding onto power was more important to them.
1. BBC Monitoring Middle East, “Iraqi activists cited on plans to mark anniversary of 2011 “uprising,”” BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 2/19/12
Aswat al-Iraq, “Scores demonstrate in Baghdad for reform,” 2/24/12
BBC Monitoring Middle East, “Iraqi activists cited on plans to mark anniversary of 2011 “uprising,”” BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 2/19/12
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Intimidation at Anniversary Protests,” 3/1/12