Iraqis protest again, this time in 'Day of Regret'

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 4, 2011; 9:18 PM

BAGHDAD - With a curfew on cars and bicycles, security tight and a recent history of security forces shooting, beating and detaining demonstrators, around 2,000 people were gathered for protests in Baghdad's Tahrir Square by noon Friday.

Once again, they held up signs saying, "All of Us Are One Nation" and "More Services" and "No No to Corruption." Small protests were forming in several cities across the country, including Basra, Dhaqar and Najaf.

In Baghdad, security was tight as police in riot gear faced the demonstrators, and it was unclear whether crowds would become larger following Friday prayers. Many protesters in the square said they were nervous about staying there considering violence that followed last week's nationwide demonstrations.

And as they were before, entire neighborhoods in Baghdad - especially Sunni ones --were blocked by security forces who warned people not to join the demonstrations.

Nidhal al-Azawi, who lives in the Dora area, said when she tried to leave her neighborhood Friday morning, a soldier told her: "If I let you go, I will be detained."

Alternately billed as a "Day of Dignity" and a "Day of Regret" - a reference to the anniversary of parliamentary elections - the protest follows last week's "Day of Rage," which brought tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets across the country. The protests began peacefully but degenerated as security forces fired into crowds, and least 29 people were killed.

Inspired by revolts sweeping the region, small protests have been popping up for weeks across Iraq, with demonstrators demanding that their newly elected government deal with an array of frustrations from lack of electricity to food rations.

So far, the movement, mostly decentralized and leaderless, has claimed a string of local victories: Three provincial governors have resigned. On Thursday, the mayor of Baghdad offered to step down.

There are signs the demonstrations may be causing Iraq's leading politicians to recalibrate. On Thursday, the country's most powerful secular leader, Ayad Allawi - whose supporters have been among those targeted by security forces - declined to accept a position in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Allawi was joined at a press conference in Najaf by the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has close ties to Iran, and called on his followers to protest in support of the Libyan people and against any U.S. intervention there. Sadr, however, has avoided any direct call for his devotees - hundreds of thousands of urban poor - to join the demonstrations, a move that would be disastrous for Maliki.

Both Allawi and Sadr, once mortal enemies, are now part of Maliki's fragile ruling coalition.

Maliki himself has had a dual response to the protests. On one hand, he has attempted to shut them down, as security forces have threatened civil society leaders, journalists and other critics. The curfew now in place means people have to walk in many cases hours to reach Tahrir Square, a minor odyssey through potholed streets, past dusty palm trees and buildings webbed together with jerry-rigged electrical wires hooked to generators.

On the other hand, Maliki has attempted to appease Iraqis taking to the streets, offering to slash his salary and to provide food rations, and setting a 100-day deadline for his cabinet to show results.

And on Wednesday night, with little fanfare, there was something else: Bars and clubs across Baghdad were re-opened.

Some protesters - among them a Facebook group called Baghdad Won't Be Kandahar - have chafed at the social conservatism, including banning alcohol, promoted by religious parties controlling the city.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company