|Security forces met protesters in Baghdad 3/18/11, part of a move to limit their scope (Associated Press)|
The state has taken several steps in recent weeks to deter demonstrations. In March it went to tribes to ask them to limit protests claiming that a conspiracy was underway to undermine the government. It has asked clerics to come out against the marchers, and aired their statements on government TV stations. It has taken away the right to issue permits for demonstrations from local authorities, and said only the Interior Ministry now has that power. Vehicle and bike bans and increased checkpoints have been imposed making it harder for people to reach assembly areas. Some neighborhoods in Baghdad claimed that security forces went house to house telling people not to join the protests. These steps have allowed the government to claim that they are allowing people to march, while limiting the number of people attending them.
Prime Minister Maliki and others have stepped up their verbal attacks upon the demonstrators. He gave a speech saying that the protesters were out of step with the majority of the country. He has accused them of killing and wounding members of the security forces, that they were backed by the Baathists and Al Qaeda, and that they were sowing violence and sectarianism. The Deputy Interior Minister said that the February 25 Day of Rage protest was a coup attempt by former members of Saddam’s regime. Again, all this rhetoric was meant to disparage the image of the demonstrators, and make them look like a dangerous threat to the country that others should not join.
As happened in Fallujah on March 18, the security forces are increasingly using force against the protesters, as well as arresting them, subjecting them to abuse and torture, while trying to hunt down organizers. The security forces have admitted that they have detained people, but denied any beatings. That has been disputed. A protester at the Day of Rage in Baghdad for example, claimed that he was picked up, beaten, held for five days, and then forced to sign a letter that he would not demonstrate again. Another person claimed he was arrested on February 24 and held for 12 days during which he was shackled with his hands behind his back and left suspended from the ceiling by his wrists. A journalist picked up the same day stated that he was electrocuted. Another reporter was taken by soldiers while he was eating at a restaurant in Baghdad, brought to the headquarters of the Army’s 11th Division, beaten, given electric shock, threatened with rape, accused of being a Baathist, before being forced to sign a statement that nothing had happened to him, and then released. He claimed to have seen hundreds of other detainees picked up the same day for protesting. In Kirkuk, three marchers were found dead with their hands bound and shot in the head in February. There were several reports of people being arrested and held after protests in Baghdad in March as well. The security forces and intelligence agencies have also attempted to track down the organizers of marches, especially those using the internet. Some of them have been rounded up, although the authorities deny it. These reports of arrests and abuses have led to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to demand investigations.
Maliki has acted swiftly to clamp down on demonstrators in Iraq. He used many of the same tactics in the summer of 2010 to suppress people taking to the streets over the lack of electricity. The premier is likely to continue with these strong arm tactics to scare, intimidate, and in some cases, beat and torture people to keep a lid on anything that might shake his hold on power. He gives lip service to people’s rights, but has shown no qualms about violating them if he can get away with it as the rule of law is still weak in Iraq. This year’s demonstrations are far more widespread and dispersed across almost the entire country than last year’s, which has proven hard for the authorities to contain. Still, they appear to be occurring in fewer numbers and in fewer places as time moves on. That may be victory enough for the authorities.
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AK News, “Peshmerga forces protect Kirkuk,” 3/3/11
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