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'Day Of Rage' Turns Deadly As Many Thousands Turn Out Across Iraq

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 25.02.2011 10:57

Reports say at least five protesters have died in clashes with Iraqi police as thousands of people protest against the government in many cities across the country in a "Day of Rage."

The five reportedly died in the city of Mosul and in the town of Hawija in northern Iraq.

Thousands of protesters who gathered in front of the governorate building in Mosul ignored an effort by the governor and a number of officials to try to meet with them, according to RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent Ahmad Hamid.

He said police did not react when some demonstrators threw stones at the governorate building, but the governor's security forces turned water cannon on the crowd after some people tried to force their way inside the front entrance.

The correspondent said a stun grenade then exploded among protesters, followed by what he described as "heavy shooting" that dispersed the crowd.

Security forces said the gunfire and stun grenades had led to two protester deaths and injured at least five other demonstrators.

Protesters across Iraq are demanding the government deliver on promises to create jobs and stamp out corruption. Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, development remains slow and Iraqis widely complain of shortages of food rations, water, power, and jobs.

Specific And General Criticisms

But as the crowds of hundreds to thousands of demonstrators came out in cities from Baghdad to Al-Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish autonomous region, many called not only for better government services but also for broad political changes.

Radio Free Iraq correspondent Azad Muhammad reported from Al-Sulaymaniyah that the protest there brought out a mixed crowd of young people and clerics. He said most of the slogans sought and end to corruption, punishment for corrupt officials, and jobs for young people.

There were also calls for the abolition of a planned constitution for Iraqi Kurdistan and the adoption of the Koran and Islamic Shari'a law in the same region.

Radio Free Iraq correspondent Ahmad al-Hitin reported from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, that hundreds of people gathered in front of the justice offices before setting out toward the provincial government headquarters. Riot forces did not manage to encircle the crowd and prevent it from advancing further, he said, so a number of army and federal police members started shooting in the direction of the crowd.

As a result, he said, two people were killed and four injured, including a cameraman for a satellite channel.

The organizers of the nationwide protest said they hoped to muster hundreds of thousands of people for demonstrations. But the chances of such a massive turnout appeared to have been diminished by last-minute calls for a boycott of the protest movement by top Shi'ite leaders.

On February 23, a spokesman for Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned the protests could be "exploited." The same day, a spokesman for radical Shi'ite cleric Muktada al-Sadr suggested the protests should be delayed six months.

The calls bolstered the position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and could be intended to buy time for his still shaky government. The government, dominated by Shi'ite political parties, took office in December after a power-sharing deal with Sunni parties ended nine months of wrangling over the country's disputed March elections.

The protests appear to signal a new street test of strength between the government and the discontented Sunni minority. Prior to the power sharing deal, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition maintained that because it won the most seats in the March elections it won the right to form the government. Many Sunnis feel they were outmaneuvered by al-Maliki, who later mustered a parliamentary majority and formed the government instead.

The rallying point in downtown Baghdad is Tahrir Square, which shares the name of the central square in Cairo where protesters recently toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. There, once the crowd in the capital swelled to thousands, minor clashes broke out as protesters stormed past concrete blast walls leading to the fortified Green Zone of government buildings and embassies. Soldiers and police used percussion bombs and fired into the air to scatter the crowd late in the afternoon.

Rebuke, Not Ouster

But unlike other protests sweeping the Arab world, these demonstrations are billed only as a rebuke against the Iraqi government, and not an effort to topple it.

"When we demonstrate we want reform rather than regime change. Ours is a new electoral political system," protest organizer Sheikh Abdel Zahra Mohammed Ali al-Timimi told Radio Free Iraq. "All demonstrators, organizers, and participants alike are among those who went to the polls and installed the present officials in their seats. But to demonstrate is to protest against their performance."

Still, government officials have strongly condemned the protest, saying it serves to strengthen the hand of armed forces who do in fact want to topple it.

Al-Maliki said on February 24 that the protests' organizers were Saddam loyalists and Al-Qaeda insurgents and urged the public not to participate.

He also cited security concerns, saying mass gatherings could be targeted by terrorists. But by late afternoon, no insurgent attacks on the protesters had been reported.

At the same time, the government has imposed a vehicle ban around protests sites that critics said would prevent television channels from positioning their satellite trucks near the protests and covering them live.

In a bid to head off the protests -- which were scheduled weeks ago -- the government also sought to show it can deliver what Iraqis want. It reduced politicians' pay, increased funds dedicated to food for the needy, and delayed a planned law that would raise import tariffs and, thus, prices of goods in markets.

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/baghdad_protests/2320573.html

Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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