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13 killed in Iraq's 'Day of Rage' protests

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 25, 2011; 9:53 AM

BAGHDAD - At least 13 people were killed in Iraq on Friday as tens of thousands defied an official curfew to join a nationwide "Day of Rage," echoing protests that have roiled the Middle East and North Africa since January.

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Despite pleas by the government and Shiite religious leaders for Iraqis to stay home, demonstrators gathered by the hundreds and thousands from Basra in the south to Mosul and Kirkuk in the north.

The protests were mostly peaceful but often angry, as Iraqis stormed at least three provincial offices and set fire to another. Fatalities were reported in Mosul, Tikrit and a town near Kirkuk after security personnel opened fire on the crowds.

Protesters vented their frustration at local officials as well as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, demanding jobs, more electricity and clean water and better pensions and medical care. In the southern province of Basra, about 10,000 demonstrators forced the resignation of the provincial governor.

And as the sun began to set, protesters in Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi were clashing with security forces, demanding that local officials step down. Security forces used tear gas, sound bombs and at times live bullets to disperse the crowds.

In Baghdad, where Maliki imposed a curfew that banned cars and even bicycles from the streets, people walked, often many miles, to reach the city's Tahrir Square. Several thousand had gathered by early afternoon.

Surrounded by hundreds of police, soldiers and rooftop snipers, with military helicopters buzzing overhead, protesters waved Iraqi flags and signs reading "Bring the Light Back" (a reference to the lack of electricity), "No to Corruption!" and "I'm a Peaceful Man."

Many said they were protesting for the first time. Among them was Selma Mikahil, 48, who defiantly waved a single 1,000-dinar bill in the air. "I want to see if Maliki can accept that I live on this!" she yelled, referring to her pension, the equivalent of $120 every five months. "I want to see if his conscience accepts this!"

Protesters circled the square and then surged down a road toward the bridge leading to Maliki's offices, where a row of giant concrete blast walls had been erected overnight to block them. At one point, protesters began pushing against the walls, managing to open a crevice and push through. Witnesses said a soldier shot one protester in the stomach, and people began to hurl rocks over the wall after that.

Though demonstrators mostly called for reform and an end to corruption, there were calls here and there for Maliki to step down.

Many said they were shocked by the "indefinite" curfew on cars and bikes imposed late Thursday night, saying the government's attempts to prevent them from demonstrating only motivated them more.

"The government is afraid of the nation!" said engineer Sbeeh Noman, who said he walked 12 miles to reach the square. "They have found out that the people have the real power. We have it."


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