Sunday, February 27, 2011

Iraq's 'Day of Rage' : government answers public with gunfire and mass arrests

MORE than two dozen people are known to have been killed in Iraq, as people around the country faced armed security forces in a nationwide 'Day of Rage' against bad government and official corruption.

After enduring war and occupation, sectarian gangs and suicide bombers, and seeing foreign companies return to partake of Iraqi oil wealth, this was ordinary Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shi'ite, Christian or Kurd, coming out together for reconstruction and basic living standards for everybody, and to make their voices heard. They want reliable electricity supplies, clean water, a decent hospital, and jobs for all. They want the government to listen.

Report with extracts from Washington Post:

"I have demands!" Salma Mikahil, 48, cried out in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, as military helicopters and snipers looked down on thousands of people bearing handmade signs and olive branches signifying peace. "I want to see if Maliki can accept that I live on this," Mikahil said, waving a 1,000-dinar note, worth less than a dollar, toward Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's offices. "I want to see if his conscience accepts it."

The authorities response to Friday's exercise of democratic protest was security forces beating protesters and opening fire with live ammunition. Six people were killed in Falluja, six more in Mosul, with more deaths reported around the country. Hundreds were injured.

Unlike those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Iraqi demonstrators were only raising modest demands, not expecting to bring the government down. Not yet. But crowds forced the resignation of the governor of the province of Basra and the entire city council of Fallujah and chased away the governor of Mosul, the brother of the speaker of parliament, who was also there and fled, too.

Angry crowds seized a local 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. At least three people were reported killed in the Tikrit area and three others in Kirkuk. By sundown in Baghdad, 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.
Two people were also reported killed in Kurdistan, in the north.

The Iraqi situation is embarrassing for the Obama administration, which would like to complete the withdrawal from Iraq while claiming it has left democratic government there, even if it is also leaving US bases and private security outfits. Iraq's security forces "generally have not used force against peaceful protesters," said Aaron Snipe, an embassy spokesman. "We support the Iraqi people's right to freely express their political views, to peacefully protest and seek redress form their government. This has been our consistent message in Iraq and throughout the region."

'The turnout Friday appeared to surprise many of the demonstrators, coming as it did after a curfew on cars and even bicycles forced people to walk, often miles, to participate. There were also pleas - some described them as threatening - from Maliki and Shiite clerics, including the populist Moqtada al-Sadr, to stay home. Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence of the war, is now part of Maliki's governing coalition and attempting to position himself as both insider and outsider. Sadr's power lies in his rare ability to call hundreds of thousands into the streets, and analysts said he is perhaps concerned about losing his impoverished urban followers to the new and still only vaguely unified protest movement .

By mid-morning in Baghdad, people were walking toward Tahrir Square along empty streets fortified with soldiers in Humvees, snipers on rooftops and mosque domes and checkpoints with X-ray equipment that might reveal a suicide vest. Young and old, some missing legs and arms, some chanting old slogans of the Mahdi Army, the protesters passed crumbling high-rise apartment buildings webbed with electrical wires hooked to generators. At times, the air smelled like sewage.
"Bring electricity!" they shouted, and "No to corruption!"

It was reported yesterday that not content with attacking demonstrators, Iraqi security forces had detained hundreds of people, including prominent journalists, artists and intellectuals. 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 with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.

"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.
The soldiers accused him of being a tool of outsiders wishing to topple Maliki's government; they demanded that he confess to being a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Hadi told them that he blamed Baathists for killing two of his brothers and that until recently he had been a member of Maliki's Dawa Party.

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. Several told him they had been detained during or after the protests. Hadi, who comes from a prominent Iraqi family, and his colleagues were released after their friends managed to make some well-placed phone calls.
"This government is sending a message to us, to everybody," he said Saturday, his forehead bruised, his left leg swollen.

Security forces have attacked the premises of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, a human rights group reports.

"At about 2 a.m. on February 23, 2011, more than 20 armed men, some of them wearing brown military uniforms and red berets, and others wearing black military uniforms with skull-and-cross-bones insignia on their helmets, pulled up in Humvees outside the group's office in Baghdad and broke in, a witness told Human Rights Watch. The security forces conducted a destructive search of the office that lasted more than an hour and seized the organization's computers, external hard drives, cameras, cell phones, CDs, documents, and several flak jackets and helmets marked "Press," the witness said.
"This raid on the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory shows the contempt of Iraqi authorities for groups that challenge the state's human rights record," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

A spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the men were part of the Iraqi army but gave few other details.

Human Rights Watch visited the group's office the morning after the raid and saw extensive damage, including broken furniture, destroyed equipment, kicked-in doors, and ripped-up posters and literature for the organization's events, such as their annual "Press Courage Awards." Framed photographs of journalists killed in Iraq since 2003 were strewn on the floor, covered in broken glass.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that authorities would not return the computer hard drives and other electronic data storage devices seized from the group.



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