Anxiety and hope ahead of Iraq 'Day of Rage' protest

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 25, 2011

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi capital was virtually locked down Thursday night as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an indefinite curfew for cars and even bicycles and warned citizens to stay away from Friday's planned "Day of Rage" protests.

Organizers had hoped the nationwide event would inject a fresh concept into the exercise of Iraq's fledgling democracy: peaceful expression of discontent. Instead, the lead-up to the big day - when protesters plan to demand a better government, not a new one - has been defined by anxiety and the increasingly familiar features of Maliki's bare-knuckle governing style.

On Tuesday night, security forces ransacked Iraq's nonprofit Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, which is supporting the protest, carting off computers, hard drives and files. On Wednesday, hundreds of soldiers and police began fortifying Baghdad's Tahrir Square, checking IDs and photographing the smattering of protesters who had begun unfurling banners reading "No to bribes!" and "The oil money is for the people!"

Then in a televised speech Thursday, Maliki, who had begun the week welcoming the protest, urged people to stay away, saying the event seemed "suspicious" and was likely to be infiltrated by al-Qaeda or perhaps loyalists of Sadaam Hussein's Baath Party or "terrorists" seeking to co-opt it for their own purposes.

Soldiers began setting up checkpoints blockading many Baghdad neighborhoods.

Near midnight Thursday, a red banner flashed across state television broadcasts announcing the curfew, a draconian measure more often deployed to deal with insurgent attacks.

Still, many of the young protesters said they were undeterred.

"If they want to get rid of our demonstration, then let them do reforms," said Ziad al-Ajeeli, director of the press group that was raided. "This is a new concept. Previously, people thought you had to change things with weapons. Now we want to change things through our ideas. We want Iraqi society to be a civil society."

Ajeeli was sitting in his office amid shattered glass, upturned chairs and rifled-through desk drawers, smoking Dunhills.

"Of course, I'm very afraid," he said of what the government might do Friday. "Everybody is. Whoever isn't doesn't have feelings."

But perhaps the biggest blow to the planned protest came from the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the few Iraqi leaders able to command hundreds of thousands of followers into the streets.

Returning to Iraq from Iran on Wednesday, Sadr issued a careful statement welcoming peaceful protests but urged his devotees to delay participating for six months, to give the government more time to address widespread complaints. Once one of the government's main enemies, the fiercely anti-American cleric is now part of Maliki's fragile governing coalition, and analysts speculate that he would rather not see it collapse, at least not now.

The cleric's move "will have the intended effect of calming things down," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group. "The question remains what others will do - the secular young in Baghdad and elsewhere."

At least five protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces during recent demonstrations across the country, each featuring similar demands: more access to electricity and clean water and an end to corruption. The protests were partly inspired by the peaceful revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In some cases, protesters have thrown rocks and set government buildings on fire. Demonstrations against an entrenched political elite in normally peaceful Kurdistan have numbered in the thousands.

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