by Gerry Foley
On Feb. 25, the protests against authoritarian rule that have swept the Middle East reached Iraq, a country that the United States has spent a trillion dollars on—and killed hundreds of thousands of people—under the pretext of bringing democracy. Revealingly, the protests in Iraq were met with police violence and intimidation comparable to that exercised by the discredited dictatorships in other Middle Eastern countries.
The Washington Post reported Feb. 26: “From the southern city of Basra to northern cities of Kurdistan, protesters demanded the simple dignities of adequate electricity, clean water and a decent job. As the day wore on, however, the demonstration grew violent when security forces deployed water cannons and sound bombs to disperse crowds. Iraqi military helicopters swooped toward the demonstrators in Baghdad, and soldiers fired into angry crowds in the protest here and in at least seven others across the country….
“Angry crowds seized a police station in Kirkuk, set fire to a provincial office in Mosul and rattled fences around the local governate offices in Tikrit, prompting security forces to open fire with live bullets, killing four people. Three people were killed in Kirkuk.
“Six people were killed in Fallujah and six others in Mosul, according to reports from officials and witnesses in at least seven protests. On Saturday, officials reported additional deaths: a 60-year old man in Fallujah; two people, including a 13-year old boy, in Qobaisa; and two in Ramadi, all in predominantly Sunni Anbar province.”
There were also clashes in Baghdad, where protesters tried to rush into the U.S.-fortified Green Zone in which the Maliki government shelters. The Feb. 25 Los Angeles Times quoted a bystander: “‘Most people want to get inside the Green Zone and ask [premier] Maliki where the country’s money is,’ said Adel, 33, a taxi driver who did not want to give his last name.”
The protesters were clearly a new force. They came out despite appeals to stay at home from the top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, and even from the Islamist firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. “The protests began with tumultuous calls for government reform, as about 1000 people shouted, waved flags and called out, ‘No, no to terrorists; no, no to Baathists; no, no to Maliki!’” (The New York Times, Feb. 25).
“By sundown in Baghdad on Friday, security forces were spraying water cannons and exploding sound bombs to disperse protesters, chasing several through streets and alleyways and killing at least three, according to a witness.” The article noted: “The reports attributed most casualties to security forces who opened fire.”
The government responded to the protests with a witch hunt worthy of the worst of the toppled dictatorships: “Iraqi security forces detained hundreds of people, including prominent journalists, artists and intellectuals, witnesses said Saturday, a day after nationwide demonstrations brought tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets and ended with soldiers shooting into crowds.”
Arrested journalists told a horror story all too familiar in the Middle Eastern dictatorships: “Four journalists who had been released described being rounded up well after they had left a protest at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They said they were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened. Ssairi and his three colleagues, one of whom had been on the radio speaking in support of protesters, said about a dozen soldiers stormed into a restaurant where they were eating dinner Friday afternoon and began beating them as other diners looked on in silence. They drove them to a side street and beat them again.
“Then, blindfolded, they were driven to the former Ministry of Defense building, which houses an intelligence unit of the Iraqi army’s 11th Division, they said. Hadi al-Mahdi, a theater director and radio anchor who has been calling for reform, said he was blindfolded and beaten repeatedly with sticks, boots and fists. One soldier put a stick into Hadi’s handcuffed hands and threatened to rape him with it, he said….
“Hadi said he was then taken to a detention cell, his blindfold off, where he said there were at least 300 people with black hoods over their heads, many groaning in bloody shirts.”
As in the other Middle Eastern states rocked by popular rebellions, the repression and intimidation failed to suppress the upsurge in Iraq. The upsurge scored important victories, although in accordance with the fragmented nature of the country they were scattered. The New York Times reported that “crowds forced the resignation of the governor in southern Basra and the entire city council in Fallujah. They also chased away the governor of Mosul, the brother of the speaker of parliament, who was there and fled, too.”
> This article was originally published in the March 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.