BAGHDAD — Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Iraqi cities Saturday despite an intense security crackdown to protest lawmakers’ perks, while a bombing in Ramadi and shootings in the capital killed 13 people in the latest bout of sectarian unrest rocking the country.
Protest organizers demanded an end to what they claim are generous pension benefits granted to members of parliament. Demonstrators also aired long-standing grievances about corruption and the poor state of public services.
Iraqi lawmakers are entitled to monthly pension payments of several thousand dollars, regardless of how long they serve — far more than government employees and private-sector workers typically get after decades of work. Many Iraqis suspect that the country’s 325 lawmakers in parliament are in politics only for the money, and they accuse them of being ineffective and slow to address the country’s myriad problems.
“We want to tell the officials that they should stop stealing. Enough is enough!” said demonstrator Ammar Abdul-Aziz, a 35-year-old engineer in Baghdad.
Authorities did not grant permission for the demonstrations in the capital, drawing criticism from rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Security forces blocked bridges and deployed large numbers of rifle-toting soldiers and police in major squares — a show of force that protesters said was mainly undertaken to prevent demonstrators from congregating in larger numbers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim defended the security operation, saying authorities were concerned that suicide bombers might try to attack the rallies. He said that authorities had no problem with the demonstrations and that his forces were present only to protect protesters.
If someone tried to kill protesters with a bomb, “all the people will say, ‘Why didn’t you protect us?’ ” he told the Associated Press at a protest site at a Baghdad square. Security forces backed by Humvees and armored personnel carriers there outnumbered the flag-waving protesters, who were surrounded by police preventing journalists from getting near them.
One of the Baghdad protest organizers, Mohammed Abbas, said he was beaten by security forces as he and his colleagues were trying to reach the central Tahrir Square. He declared the day’s protests a success despite the low turnout and pledged to mount more demonstrations.
Outside the capital, hundreds of people demonstrated in the southern city of Basra. Protests were also reported in Nasiriyah and Hilla, as well as in the country’s mainly Shiite south.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement on his Web site voicing “support for the protesters’ demands” and said he would work to reform lawmakers’ compensation.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.