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Iraqis Get the Tahrir Spirit

Last Friday's day of rage shows Nouri al-Maliki is in danger of becoming the Mubarak of Baghdad. The question is, how will the US respond?

Sami Ramadani

 by The Guardian

As the walls of fear are being knocked down in one Arab country after another, the ugly concrete walls "of separation and intimidation" erected by the US-led forces in Iraqi cities have become a target of protesters. During last Friday's "day of rage", 29 people were killed by security forces. Another day of protest is planned for this Friday (4 March) "to honour the 29 martyrs". The regime's tactics – which include the shooting of peaceful demonstrators – show that the post-occupation edifice built by the US is not much different from the assortment of American-backed dictatorships across north Africa and the Middle East.

It was George Bush who – referring to Syrian troops in Lebanon – declared that free and fair elections were not possible under occupation. Iraqis for once find themselves in agreement with him as they question the legitimacy of elections under occupation that produced a toothless parliament with no more power than Egypt's under Mubarak.

Like all regimes threatened by mass uprisings, Iraq is a police state that shows its true face once challenged by the people. And the more radical the challenge, the more violent the reaction. In Egypt and Tunisia hundreds were killed and thousands injured to bring about the downfall of Ben Ali and Mubarak. But the most radical demand – the regime's overthrow – has yet to be tested.

In Iraq a majority of Friday's protesters wanted to "reform" rather than overthrow a "corrupt" regime. However, the lesson the regime appears to have drawn from the great uprisings sweeping the region is to anticipate and act to stop people, especially in Baghdad, from congregating in large numbers.

Extraordinary measures were taken to prevent people converging on the capital's Tahrir Square. All of Baghdad's many bridges over the Tigris – linking the two halves of the city – were closed, all vehicles and bicycles banned. New concrete blast walls sealed off Jamahiriya bridge, which leads to the hated Green Zone. A city of over 6 million people had been turned into a massive site for police and army encampments and fortifications.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, was clearly motivated by fear of the masses, declaring that although he was in favour of protecting the right to protest, he thought it best that in future people should gather only in Baghdad's football stadium or al-Zowra'a park – rather than march for rallies in Tahrir Square. Presumably he was petrified by the thought that a great banner, similar to the one that adorned Cairo's Tahrir square, would go up proclaiming: "The people want to overthrow the regime".

For its part, the world's biggest US embassy – the power behind the throne – took the unprecedented step of broadcasting in Arabic, on state TV, a thinly veiled threat to protesters not to go too far in their demands. The US, it stressed, fully backed the "democratically elected" regime, while supporting the right to peaceful protest. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama must be pretty confused as to which dictatorship they should now abandon and which to prop up.

Maliki has so far made four state-TV broadcasts. In the first two he urged people to stay at home, because "Ba'athists and al-Qaida terrorists" had infiltrated the protesters and were planning to kill them. In the third, he was visibly shaken, thanking the protesters and promising reform "within one hundred days". Lastly, he implied the state would react violently and even torture journalists if they wanted to "overthrow" him and his regime, because he was "democratically elected".

His accusations that the protesters were "Ba'athists" was answered with the most popular chant of last Friday: "Nouri al-Maliki is a liar." Other slogans asserted: "The people's oil is for the people not for the thieves"; "We want dignity, jobs and services"; "No to terrorism, no to Saddam's dictatorship, and no to the dictatorship of thieves"; "No to the occupation"; "We are not Ba'athists, repression is Ba'athist"; and an old favourite of many previous rallies, "Sunnis and Shia, this homeland we shall never sell". In Iraqi Kurdistan, where at least six were killed, protesters demanded that Kurdish leaders Barzani and Talbani must follow Mubarak.

The Iraqi struggle for "dignity and freedom" is even more difficult than that of Libya's heroic people. It faces 50,000 US troops (plus tens of thousands of contracted mercenaries) and Iraqi forces numbering over 1.5 million. The indifference of the BBC and other media is conspicuous and hypocritical, particularly following the torture of four Iraqi journalists.

However, inspired by the uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, Iraqis have embarked on a new phase in their struggle.

© 2020 The Guardian

Sami Ramadani

Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University. Sami was born in Iraq and became an exile from Saddam Hussein's regime in 1969, as a result of his political activities in support of democracy and socialism. He opposed the sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people (1991-2003) and the invasion of Iraq (2003). He is active in the movement to end the US-led occupation.

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