Anti-government protest blocked in Iraq

2011-06-10t123430z_01_bag02_rtridsp_3_iraq1.jpgBy Tim Craig,
BAGHDAD — An anti-government protest scheduled for Friday in Iraq’s capital was quashed after several participants reported being beaten with sticks and clubs to make way for a counter-demonstration.
Following the end of a 100-day cooling-off period requested by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, students and activists had been expected to flock to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to press for reforms and more government services.
Instead, several thousand Maliki supporters showed up at the square early Friday demanding the execution of a Sunni man suspected of killing nearly 70 Shiites at a wedding in 2006.
Despite being greatly outnumbered, several hundred anti-government demonstrators attempted to hold their protest in a different part of Tahrir Square. But within minutes, they said, groups of men carrying sticks and clubs demanded that they leave.
“They dragged me from the fence and beat me,” said Wafa Sheba, a women’s rights activist. “We went to the security forces and tried to complain, but security forces said they were not going to interfere.”
Daniel Smith, an American freelance journalist and activist, said the scene was reminiscent of the violence in Cairo when men armed with crude weapons tried to disrupt the demonstrations that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power in February.
“There were lots of people with sticks,” Smith said. “They were saying: ‘We’re with Maliki. You’re Baathists.’ ”
The violence coincides with efforts by Maliki, a Shiite, to keep Iraq’s relatively small anti-government protest movement from spreading.
In February, nearly two dozen people were killed in violent clashes between demonstrators and security personnel across Iraq. To quell the unrest, Maliki asked protesters to give his government 100 days to evaluate the performance of ministers in addressing concerns such as a lack of clean water and electricity.
The 100 days were up this week, but Maliki has yet to announce whether he plans to ask any ministers to resign.
In recent weeks, human rights officials have accused Maliki of trying to stifle dissent through detentions and raids on protest organizers’ offices.
Two weeks ago, four men were thrown in an unmarked van in Tahrir Square when they tried to attend an anti-government demonstration. The men, including three students, were detained for 10 days for allegedly carrying false identification. They were released Tuesday following pressure from international human rights organizations.
Earlier this week, protest organizers had predicted that thousands of demonstrators would gather in Tahrir Square on Friday to mark the end of the cooling-off period.
Late Thursday, however, security forces imposed a tight cordon around the square. According to one security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely, police and Iraqi army personnel were told the square was being reserved for the Shiite demonstrators. Thousands of people were bused in for the counter-demonstration, which included signs and chants in support of Maliki, TV footage showed.
Janaat Basim, 28, an anti-government protester, did not know about the pro-Maliki event until she and her friends arrived in Tahrir Square about 9 a.m.
After a thorough security screening, Basim said, they were allowed into the square but were quickly surrounded by “nine or 10 men with sticks.” After calling her and her friends “communists” and “prostitutes,” she said, the men began hitting them.
At least one of Basim’s friends had part of a tooth knocked out, she said. She questioned how the men were allowed to get weapons into the square.
“If security forces were doing their jobs, how can these people enter the square with sticks?” she said.