It is stunningly ironic that the Arab revolt, whose momentum for democratic change has spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Libya, is now threatening to engulf Iraq, too. Exactly eight years after the US invasion of that country plunged into a nightmare of mass killings and civil war, the democracy that the Bush administration tried to impose—and which the Obama administration supports, half-heartedly—is under siege from Iraqis who actually want the same thing that Egyptians and Tunisians want. It’s plain to see that Iraq is an authoritarian state, and its Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to aggregate even more power in his hands.
For two weeks, Maliki has unleashed the full force of his private security guard on protesters, killing dozens, blocking streets with barricades to prevent peaceful gatherings from taking place, arresting journalists, and more. In Basra and Baghdad, he’s imposed a curfew on all vehicles, banning cars and motorcycles. His troops have used live ammunition and water cannons against crowds.
“There is no power sharing,” says Iyad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya bloc, which won the largest number of seats in the March 2010 election. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Allawi said: “Really, we don’t have democracy. It’s a joke to say that we have a democracy.” Though his party is breaking apart, Allawi this week rejected the idea of joining Maliki’s government as head of a special security council, claiming that the council will be given no power. Allawi is seeking new allies, and last week he held a joint news conference with Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, a mercurial Shiite cleric whose Sadrist bloc and Mahdi Army paramilitary forces backed Maliki last year, is now threatening to abandon Maliki’s government and join with Allawi. Meanwhile, Allawi has backed protesters who’ve filled Tahrir Square in Baghdad, and in the news conference with Sadr, Allawi said he supports Sadr’s call to allow Iraqis then right to demonstrate openly and without harassment by government security forces.
Thousands of Iraqis are taking to the streets in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul —Iraq’s three largest cities—and in other areas, including Kurdistan, to protest corruption, government mismanagement, lack of services, electricity shortages and other concerns. Mass protests have occurred in numerous provincial capitals and small towns, and in several cases provincial governors have been placed under siege, forced to flee or resigned. Maliki is cracking down hard. On Monday, security forces shuttered the offices of two opposition parties, the Iraq Nation party and the Communist party. Mithal al-Alusi, the iconoclastic leader of the Iraq Nation party, told the New York Times that Maliki had tried to convince him to support the government when the protests erupted, but he refused. “We support the demonstrations,” he said. “We are in the streets with our people.”
It’s important to note that by all accounts the protesters are neither religious sectarians nor ethnic separatists, and none of the slogans and signs have raised Sunni vs. Shiite or Arab vs. Kurd issues. Instead, as in Egypt, the protesters are ordinary citizens, including workers, students and middle-class Iraqis.
For the first time, there are signs that the United States is tilting against Maliki, while Iran is backing him. In an editorial on Press TV, the hardline Iranian state-owned organ, a commentator declared that the opposition in Iraq, including the protesters, were trying to “blackmail” Maliki, and called on Maliki to develop a security plan to impose when US troops leave Iraq at the end of 2011, and to reorganize his government and cabinet, saying he could “sweat out the current hard times with the assistance of favorable parties.” Meanwhile, the US embassy in Iraq issued a harsh condemnation of the attacks on Iraqi journalists and called for an investigation.