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 areas where residents are generally opposed to Maliki — 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 Saddam 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.
Segar and his colleagues said they were attacked on the night of Feb. 20. A group of journalists and human rights activists who were inspired by events in Egypt, they had set up a tent in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and planned to stay until the government acknowledged demands that included an end to corruption and better services. They sang songs and recited poetry.
About midnight, Segar and others said, the Iraqi army and police officers who had been guarding the group — and with whom the protesters had become friendly — suddenly withdrew. The lights shining on the square dimmed.
About 15 minutes later, Segar said, several trucks and sport-utility vehicles arrived with 60 to 70 men, some wearing T-shirts, others in tracksuits, and many in military boots.
“I told one of them, ‘We received permission, orally, from the military force,’ ” Segar said, referring to the soldiers who had been protecting them. “And he said, ‘There is no army here. Where is the army?’ Only Allah could protect us.”
The security forces began attacking the protesters, many of whom were asleep. They stabbed them in the buttocks, legs and faces with knives, beat them with sticks, plastic chairs and boots, and chased them into the darkened alleys and streets, Segar said.
Later in the week, at least two Humvees delivered a similarly clad force to the office of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, which advocates for press freedoms. The men ransacked the office, carting off computers and files.
On Thursday, residents from a predominantly Sunni area of Baghdad known as Dora said that army and police officers who usually protect their area withdrew from their posts and that members of an unfamiliar security force wearing black uniforms and plain clothes arrived and began knocking on doors.
“They were telling people, ‘You are prohibited from going to the demonstration,’ ” said Nidhal al-Azawi, a local organizer for Allawi’s party. “They took peoples’ identification to prevent them from going.”
Azawi and others said that at least five men from her neighborhood and more from other areas were detained, blindfolded and taken to what she described as an army detention center in the military’s 6th Division. She said they were not harmed and were released Saturday after the protests.
Near the northern city of Kirkuk, where seven protesters were killed, doctors at a hospital said special security forces stormed in and demanded their cellphones — a move that doctors said was intended to prevent them from photographing injured protesters.
In Baghdad, Hadi al-Mahdi was among four journalists picked up by security forces at a restaurant Friday and driven to the headquarters of the army’s 11th Division. After he was beaten, given electric shocks and threatened with rape, he was taken to a relatively luxurious office, he said.
There, he realized from signs and from his own questions that he was in the care of an army intelligence unit.
As he waited to be released, Mahdi was asked to sign a statement saying that he had not been tortured. On the way out, he said he saw a room filled with hundreds of detainees wearing hoods. There were so many that they spilled out into the hallway, while others were crammed inside restrooms. A security official in the 11th Division headquarters who declined to give his name confirmed the scene.
Mahdi limped outside, his head bloodied, his leg swollen. There, he saw American soldiers who are stationed at the building.
“I said, ‘Look! Look at what happened to me!’ ” he recalled. The soldiers, he said, shook their heads.