Protesters say Maliki is using special security forces to shut down demonstrations in Iraq
BAGHDAD - Among the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, Iraq's has been an exception: Here, protesters are seeking to reform a democratically elected government, not to topple an autocrat.
But protesters, human rights workers and security officials say the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded to Iraq's demonstrations in much the same way as many of its more authoritarian neighbors: with force.
Witnesses in Baghdad and as far north as Kirkuk described watching last week as security forces in black uniforms, tracksuits and T-shirts roared up in trucks and Humvees, attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded, to army detention centers.
Entire neighborhoods - primarily Sunni Muslim areas where residents are generally opposed to Maliki, a Shiite - were blockaded to prevent residents from joining the demonstrations. Journalists were beaten.
In most cases, regular soldiers and police officers simply stood aside, with one saying the matter was "beyond us." In all, 29 people were killed.
"Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him," said Salam Mohammed al-Segar, a human rights activist who was among those beaten during a sit-in. "The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now - it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state. But in reality?"
He shook his head.
Last Friday, the U.S. Embassy here issued a statement saying that security forces appeared to have followed Maliki's directive to allow peaceful protests. As reports emerged Saturday of the beaten journalists, the White House issued a statement saying that U.S. officials were "deeply troubled." The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment further.
More demonstrations are planned Friday, and Maliki's response will amount to a character test of the sort of government the United States will leave behind as American troops prepare to withdraw at the end of the year. Although he has been praised for restoring a measure of security to Iraq, Maliki has been criticized for showing an authoritarian streak, in particular for maintaining a shadow security force outside the regular chains of command. He strongly denies this.
On Thursday, Maliki's chief rival, secular leader Ayad Allawi - whose supporters were among those targeted in the crackdown - said he would not accept a position in Maliki's cabinet, although he remains a member of the prime minister's fragile governing coalition.
In a news conference this week, Maliki denied detaining any protesters, apart from four journalists who were beaten and released. He said the violence would be investigated, blaming some of it on other journalists, former members of Hussein's Baath Party and al-Qaeda operatives. He questioned the motives of some demonstrators, saying that security forces were deployed to prevent suicide bombings.
But those who were targeted say Maliki is increasingly using special security forces to punish critics and political opponents.