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

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 26, 2011

BAGHDAD - Tens of thousands of Iraqis surged into the streets Friday in at least a dozen demonstrations across the country, storming provincial buildings, forcing local officials to resign, freeing prisoners and otherwise demanding more from a government they only recently had a chance to elect.

At least 23 protesters were killed as Iraqis braved security forces to vent shared frustrations at the nearest government official. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians, they shouted for simple dignities made more urgent by war - adequate electricity, clean water, a decent hospital, a fair shot at a job.

"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 as he waved 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 protests - billed as Iraq's "Day of Rage" - represented a new sort of conflict for a population that has been menaced by sectarian militias and suicide bombers. Now, many wondered whether they would have to add to the list of enemies their own government, whose security forces beat and shot at protesters and journalists Friday and left hundreds injured.

Six people were killed in Fallujah and six in Mosul, with the other deaths reported in five separate incidents around the country, according to officials and witnesses. The reports attributed most casualties to security forces who opened fire.

Violence on the streets

The demonstrators who sparked the crackdown were calling for reform, not revolution, although there were mini-examples of the latter - hyper-local versions of the recent revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Crowds forced the resignation of the governor of the southern 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.

The protests began peacefully but grew more aggressive. 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 the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north.

The day's events posed a unique challenge for the Obama administration, which has struggled to calibrate its responses to the protests rolling across the Middle East and North Africa but has a particular stake in the stability of the fledgling democracy the United States helped usher in here.

Analysts said Friday's developments were at best awkward for the United States.

"Obama wants to convey that 'Yes, Iraq has a number of problems that need to be addressed, but the country is on the right track,'???" said Joost Hiltermaan, deputy director for the International Crisis Group's Middle East program. "You can't possibly say, 'Iraq is in a crisis, and by the way, we're leaving.' "

The United States is set to complete the withdrawal of all its troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

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