Demonstrations Turn Violent in Iraq

Friday, 25 February 2011 12:44 By Michael S Schmidt, Michael Schwartz and Jack Healy, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Baghdad - Demonstrations turned violent across Iraq on Friday, as protesters burned buildings and security forces fired on the crowds.

Thousands of Iraqis demanding better government services took to the streets in at least 10 cities, from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, despite attempts by the government and by top Shiite leaders to head off the protests .

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki made a televised speech on Thursday urging Iraqis not to gather, warning that insurgents would use the opportunity to carry out attacks. Security officials in Baghdad banned all cars from the streets until further notice.

The constellation of rallies, modeled after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, brought together a chorus of anger and frustration over government corruption, instability and shoddy public services. Unlike protesters elsewhere in the region, though, the crowds in Iraq did not call for an entirely new form of government.

In Mosul, a restive, ethnically mixed city in the north, two people were killed when local security forces fired on demonstrators who tried to storm two government buildings.

In Baghdad, hundreds of people walked through the sprawling city to Tahrir Square, which has been a gathering point for demonstrations over the last few weeks, shouting and waving flags in a tumultuous call for government reform.

The protesters in Baghdad pulled down two concrete blast walls that blocked access to a bridge leading to the Green Zone. Rock-throwing demonstrators clashed with security forces who, in turn, beat many of the protesters and kept them from crossing the bridge.

Demonstrations elsewhere in the country seemed to spiral out of control.

Iraqi soldiers fired on about 250 demonstrators in Ramadi in the west, killing one person and wounding eight. Those protesters were calling for the resignation of the provincial governor.

In Salahuddin Province north of Baghdad, Army troops fired on protesters, wounding five people.

Protesters tallied one surprising success in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The provincial governor appeared before a crowd of 10,000 people who were demanding his resignation and announced that he would step down. A report on Iraqi television said the governor resigned at the behest of Prime Minister Maliki.

Mr. Maliki has offered a complex response to the waves of discontent at his government. While affirming the free-speech rights of protesters, he has also discouraging people from gathering.

In his nationally televised address on Thursday night, Mr. Maliki tried to persuade Iraqis to call off the protests, saying that loyalists of Saddam Hussein were behind the protests, and that insurgents would try to exploit the protests to sow unrest.

Mr. Maliki’s appeals came a day after the populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr returned to Iraq from Iran and cautioned against protesting, asking Iraqis to have more patience with the government.

“They are attempting to crack down on everything you have achieved, all the democratic gains, the free elections, the peaceful exchanges of power and freedom,” he said. “So I call on you, from a place of compassion, to thwart the enemy plans by not participating in the demonstrations tomorrow, because it’s suspicious and it will give rise to the voice of those who destroyed Iraq.”

In Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, the ban on vehicular traffic seemed likely to prevent at least some people from reaching the square where demonstrations were planned.

“It’s definitely a shrewd move” said Zaid Al-Ali, who was a legal adviser for the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010, dealing with constitutional and parliamentary issues. “They don’t want there to be a large turnout, because it coincides with the movements in the rest of the region, and they don’t want their people to build momentum.”

Still, he said, Friday’s events would have an important bearing on Iraqi politics over the next six months. “Either there will be a large turnout, and the government will react by improving services or cracking down on the people,” he said, “or the government will continue to ignore the people and public anger will simmer.”

Protesters said the government’s restrictions had redoubled their determination.

“No one can stop me,” said Ali Muhsin, 28, an unemployed lawyer. “If you want your freedom, you have to get it, even if it’s at the end of the world.”Mr. Ali, the legal adviser, said that larger waves of unrest could still erupt in the months ahead, when scorching summer temperatures and regular power outages put the government’s faults on sharp display.

“If you look at Iraqi history, all the revolutions and public unrest have started in the summer,” he said. “With the heat getting worse, the lack of electricity and the fact that Iraqis know how well others are living better in neighboring countries, they will be much more likely to take to the streets. On top of that, they know about how successful protests have been in Tunisia, Egypt, and maybe Libya.”

Zaid Thaker and Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad. Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra.

This article "Demonstrations Turn Violent in Iraq" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Friday, 25 February 2011 12:49