The fires of the Arab uprising have spread to US-occupied Iraq. Sectarian divisions fostered by the US and its puppet Iraqi government, through death squads, sermons and propaganda, have been swept aside as Iraq’s working class unites to demand jobs, basic services and an end to corruption. From the southern city of Basra to the northern cities of Kurdistan, tens of thousands have come out in protest despite a brutal crackdown on demonstrations by the puppet government.
After sporadic protests in different cities throughout early February, workers came out in force on February 25 united in what they called “a day of peaceful anger”. In every major city, Sunni, Shia and Kurds came out on the streets demanding the simple dignities of adequate electricity, clean water and jobs. The Washington Post reported on February 26:
“The turnout Friday appeared to surprise many of the demonstrators, coming as it did after a curfew on cars and even bicycles forced people to walk, often miles, to participate. There were also pleas – some described them as threatening – from [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and Shiite clerics, including the populist Moqtada al-Sadr, to stay home ...
“By mid-morning in Baghdad, people were walking toward Tahrir Square along empty streets fortified by soldiers in Humvees, snipers on rooftops and mosque domes and checkpoints ...”
According to the Washington Post: “Young and old, some missing legs and arms, some chanting old slogans of the Mahdi Army, the protesters passed crumbling high-rise apartment buildings webbed with electrical wires hooked to generators. At times, the air smelled like sewage.
“‘Bring electricity!’ they shouted. ‘No to corruption!’”
By the afternoon, several thousand people had gathered in the square, which is next to a bridge leading to the heavily guarded Green Zone housing puppet government and occupation force offices. Puppet forces had brought in huge blast walls to block the bridge, but the protesters managed to put a rope around one of them and pull it down.
“‘As you can see, they are hiding behind this wall!’ shouted Sbeeh Noman, a white-haired engineer who said he walked 12 miles to reach the square. ‘The government is afraid of the nation. They have found out that the people have the real power.’”
“Salma Mikahil, 48, cried ‘I have demands!’ as military helicopters and snipers looked down on thousands of people bearing handmade signs and olive branches signifying peace. ‘I want to see if Maliki can accept that I live on this,’ Mikahil said, waving a 1,000-dinar note, worth less than one US dollar, toward Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offices.”
Peaceful protests were met with violence when security forces deployed water cannons and sound bombs to disperse crowds. Iraqi military helicopters swooped toward the demonstrators in Baghdad, and soldiers fired into crowds in Baghdad and at least seven other cities.
The protesters did not take this aggression lying down. Angry crowds seized a police station in Kirkuk, set fire to a provincial office in the Kurdish city of Mosul and beseiged the local government offices in Tikrit, where puppet forces opened fire with live bullets, killing four people. Three people were killed in Kirkuk and six in Mosul. Around 1000 demonstrators also clashed with police in the western city of Fallujah, 65km west of Baghdad, where seven people were killed. Officials also reported the deaths of a 13-year old boy in Qobaisa and two protesters in Ramadi, all in predominantly Sunni Anbar province.
In the port city of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 550km south-east of Baghdad, a crowd of about 4000 people demonstrated in front of the office of Governor Sheltagh Aboud al-Mayahi. They knocked over a concrete barrier and demanded his resignation, saying he had done nothing to improve city services. Soon Major General Mohammad Jawad Hawaidi, the commander of Basra military operations, told the crowd that the governor had resigned in response to the demonstrations. Iraqi state television announced that the prime minister asked the governor to step down but made no mention of the protests. In early March both the governors of Baghdad and Babil were also forced to resign.
Arrested journalists told horror stories all too familiar in US-sponsored dictatorships. A dozen soldiers stormed into a restaurant where four journalists, one of whom had been on the radio speaking in support of protesters, were eating dinner Friday afternoon, well after they had left the protest at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. The soldiers began beating them as other diners looked on in silence. They drove them to a side street and beat them again.
Hadi al-Mahdi, a theatre director and radio anchor, told the Washington Post of being blindfolded and driven to the former Ministry of Defence building, which houses an intelligence unit of the Iraqi army’s 11th Division. He said that he was beaten repeatedly with sticks, boots and fists as well as being threatened with rape. The soldiers accused him of being a tool of outsiders wishing to topple Maliki’s government; they demanded that he confess to being a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Hadi told them that he blamed Baathists for killing two of his brothers and that until recently he had been a member of Maliki’s Dawa Party.
Hadi said he was then taken to a detention cell, his blindfold off, where he said there were at least 300 people with black hoods over their heads, many groaning in bloody shirts. Hadi, who comes from a prominent Iraqi family, and his colleagues were released after their friends managed to make some well-placed phone calls. Most of the hundreds of protesters who have been detained do not have well-placed connections and are still locked up or worse.
Despite the heavy crackdown since February 25, there have been more protests across Iraq. In the semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan, workers are challenging the two-party system that has been dominating their lives. “What is happening now in Kurdistan is a radical change in the Kurdish political landscape”, said Bachtyar Ali, whose 1992 poetry collection Sin and the Carnival and magical realist novels marked a Kurdish cultural renaissance. “We are abandoning the classic form of 20th century governance which indoctrinated us with the notions that ideologies, parties and the president were all sacred”, he told Reuters on March 25.
On March 23 the Kurdish governor and the provincial council chief of Kirkuk resigned in what political opponents said was a bid to placate discontent with powerful Kurdish political parties. Kurdistan has been spared the worst effects of the occupation and US-fomented religious division and is considered quite prosperous in relation to the rest of Iraq. But many Kurds complain that they have seen little of the new wealth.
Shukriya Mohammed Kareem told Reuters on March 25 that the government was not using its wealth to look after the people. “My husband is retired. But I only get 200,000 Iraqi dinars (US$170) a month. I have a son and six daughters. I have come here just to say I don’t want this government”, she said at a protest in Sulaimaniya. “What’s the good of a government which does nothing for you and just fills its officials’ pockets up with money?”
On March 25 under heavy rain, hundreds of protesters gathered in central Baghdad, defying government intimidation to demand better public services and the release of prisoners held in jail without trial. These prisoners include recent protesters and other political prisoners detained since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraq’s workers have also come out in solidarity with other uprisings in the Arab world. On March 19 thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in Basra against the presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain. Protests against the US and NATO intervention in Libya occurred in Baghdad on March 4.
As protests increase, the armed resistance to the military occupation has continued. According to Reuters and AFP, on March 19 and 20, numerous actions took place in Baghdad. Insurgents in a speeding car wounded Major General Ahmed Obeidi, head of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, when they shot at his car in north-eastern Baghdad. Insurgents shot and killed Najib Jamal, the Oil Ministry’s director for marketing, near the city’s eastern Zayouna district. Three policemen were wounded by a roadside bomb near al-Tahariyat Square in central Baghdad, and a bomb blast targeted an army patrol in northern Baghdad, killing two soldiers and wounding six.