Government-sponsored demonstrators, some armed with clubs, attacked pro-democracy protesters Friday in Tahrir Square and paraded pictures of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s chief rival, Iyad Allawi, with a red X slashed across his face.
Groups of rowdy young men, some said by Western sources to have been bused in by Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, roamed the streets armed with sticks and other weapons. At least four men were badly beaten and several women were assaulted, said pro-democracy activists who have held weekly rallies at the downtown square since February, inspired by the populist movements that first swept Tunisia and Egypt.
The violence, which echoed street attacks in the years leading to the creation of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian state, bodes ill for Iraq’s emergent democracy, which President Obama recently described as a success story.
The attacks on peaceful protesters also raise questions about how much freedom of expression will be tolerated by the Maliki government after the remaining U.S. forces leave Iraq by year’s end.
The incident comes as state television airs the purported confessions of suspects in a brutal sectarian massacre during the height of the bloodshed in 2006. About 70 Shiite Muslims were killed when an armed Sunni Muslim group stormed a wedding party in Taji.
One of the confessions, which some believe were coerced, is accompanied by graphic images showing the victims, bound and gagged, lying on the bank of the Tigris River, and then, after they were shot, their blood turning the water red.
The pro-government rallygoers, estimated at 1,000, demanded that the killers be executed.
It didn’t take long for the demonstrators to turn on the pro-democracy activists. At least one group of men assaulted 10 women, allegedly groping and clubbing them, and others were beaten before they fled.
The assailants had steel pipes, knives and guns, and soldiers present did not intervene, pro-democracy activists said. Instead, the activists said, they offered juice and food to the pro-government forces.
“We were about 10 women standing on the same place we used to stand each Friday carrying our signs, the same we carry every week. After about two minutes, a person came to us, I can describe him as pro-government person, and asked us to leave that place because it is for the people supporting Nouri Maliki,” said Jannat Bassem, a women’s rights activist.
“We refused to withdraw. This man was wearing a black shirt; then three persons in plainclothes came with him. After we refused, one of them pulled one of the signs we were carrying and started to hit us with them it.”
Among those threatened Friday was Ali Jaff, one of four democracy activists detained two weeks ago and released Tuesday.
“They surrounded us and their crowds began to push us,” Jaff said. “We noticed that there were people wearing plainclothes carrying walkie-talkies.”
Some activists retreated down the street to Firdos Square, the plaza where a statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down days after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A small group of men sat on the grass there, some saying that they had been beaten in recent days.
One of the men was on crutches, his leg in a cast. He said that at last week’s protest a few soldiers asked him for a smoke and then threw him into a car, where they broke his leg. He said he was so scared that he didn’t go to a hospital for two days.
Police cars circled and about a dozen buses filled with pro-government tribesmen passed, taunting the activists from the windows.
After the activists had been chased from the square, two government ministers and a military spokesman from Maliki’s coalition joined the pro-government rallygoers and did not mention the beatings or the inflammatory pictures of Allawi.
“Today the tyrants crossed all lines,” Allawi said later.
Salman is a Times staff writer