Iraq protests draw thousands


Stifled by tight security but met with far less bloodshed than the week before, thousands of people swarmed to protests across Iraq on Friday to call for better public services and more accountable politicians.

The demonstrations went ahead despite curfews and bans on vehicle movement in major cities such as Baghdad and Basra. However, the gatherings were smaller than similar rallies the previous week, which saw more than a dozen people killed in clashes with security forces.Declaring Prime Minister Nouri Maliki a liar and waving banners that said "we need freedom" and "we love Baghdad," about 2,000 people gathered in the capital's Tahrir Square, where music played, pictures of the slums of West Baghdad were displayed and a mime performed.

But the route to the square was blocked with razor wire and dozens of extra checkpoints. In a sharp increase of an already-heavy security presence, thousands of police and soldiers in armored vehicles lined the streets.Hansa Hassan, 40, a teacher who went to the protests last week but was deterred from attending Friday because she was afraid of security forces, said she knew many would-be demonstrators who were turned back altogether.

"There were many people who wanted to participate but who were prevented; my husband insisted, and he managed to go in, but there were many barriers," she said.One protester, who asked to be known only as Hamzuz because he feared for the safety of his family, said people were prevented from crossing any of the bridges over the Tigris River to get to the square in eastern Baghdad.

"We couldn't take water with us, or pens or cameras, or a statement that we wrote about the violence last Friday," said Hamzuz, who is with a youth protest movement called Iraqi Streets 4 Change.The previous Friday, there were violent confrontations in Tahrir Square between protesters and riot police, with demonstrators throwing stones and security forces firing water cannons, setting off sound bombs and, according to some witnesses, firing live rounds.

At least 13 journalists were prevented from covering the Feb. 25 protests and arrested in Baghdad, according to the head of the journalists union, Moayad Lami, who said the detainees were beaten in jail before being released.On Friday, journalists at the Baghdad protest were protected by security forces. However, local television news reported that riot police beat two Iraqi cameramen during a protest in Basra.

The unrest, which has been going on for a month, has rattled the political establishment, with Maliki and the speaker of the parliament, Osama Nujaifi, backing early provincial elections and giving ministers 100 days to address issues such as the provision of electricity and clean water.Maliki's shaky parliamentary ally, radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, has called the demonstrations credible, and on Friday thousands of people rallied in the heartland of his support: the Sadr City suburb in east Baghdad.

Facebook groups and websites were immediately updated with pictures of the events of the day, and protesters said they were planning more events. Hassan, the teacher, said she hoped to be there next week."Inshallah [God willing], next Friday we will go to Tahrir," she said. "Because, really, we hope to make changes to gain a good future for our sons and daughters."

By Alice Fordham and Raheem Salman,
Los Angeles Times

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