New Iraq protests smaller, less violent amid tight security
Stifled by tight security but met with far less bloodshed than the week before, thousands of people swarmed to protests Friday across Iraq to call for better public services and more accountable politicians.
The demonstrations went ahead despite curfews and bans on vehicle movement in major cities such as Baghdad, the capital, and Basra. But the gatherings were smaller than similar rallies the previous week, which saw more than a dozen people killed in clashes with security forces.
Declaring Prime Minister Nouri Maliki a liar and waving banners that said, “We need freedom” and “We love Baghdad,” about 2,000 people gathered in the capital’s Tahrir Square, where music played, pictures of west Baghdad slums were displayed and a mime performed.
But the route to the square was blocked with razor wire and dozens of extra checkpoints. In a sharp increase of an already heavy security presence, thousands of police officers and soldiers in armored vehicles lined the streets.
Hansa Hassan, 40, a teacher who went to the protests last week but did not go Friday because she was afraid of security forces, said she knew many would-be demonstrators who were turned back altogether.
“There were many people who wanted to participate but who were prevented; my husband insisted, and he managed to go in, but there were many barriers,” she said.
One protester, who asked to be known only as Hamzuz because he feared for the safety of his family, said people were prevented from crossing any of the bridges over the Tigris River to get to the square in east Baghdad.
“We couldn’t take water with us, or pens or cameras, or a statement that we wrote about the violence last Friday,” said Hamzuz, who is with a youth protest movement called Iraqi Streets 4 Change.
The previous Friday, there were violent confrontations in Tahrir Square between protesters and police officers, with demonstrators throwing stones and security forces firing water cannons, setting off “sound bombs” and, according to some witnesses, firing live ammunition.
At least 13 journalists were prevented from covering the Feb. 25 protests and arrested in Baghdad, according to the head of the journalists union, Moayad Lami, who said the detainees were beaten in jail before being released.
Journalists at the Baghdad protest Friday were protected by security forces. Local television news, however, reported that riot police beat two Iraqi cameramen during a protest in Basra.
The unrest, which has been going on for a month, has rattled the political establishment, with Maliki and the speaker of the parliament, Usama Nujaifi, backing early provincial elections and giving ministers 100 days to address issues such as the provision of electricity and clean water.
Maliki’s parliamentary ally, radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, has called the demonstrations credible, and thousands of people rallied Friday in the heartland of his support: the Sadr City neighborhood in east Baghdad.
Facebook groups and websites were promptly updated with pictures of the events of the day, and protesters said they were planning more events.
Hassan, the teacher, said she hoped to be there next week.
“God willing, next Friday we will go to Tahrir,” she said. “Because, really, we hope to make changes to gain a good future for our sons and daughters.”
Fordham is a special correspondent and Salman is a Times staff writer.