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Iraqi Prime Minister Softens Tone On Protests

A young Iraqi holds a national flag in front of security forces as thousands gather in Baghdad on March 4 to protest corruption, unemployment and poor public services. After cracking down on earlier protests, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has changed his tone.
Ali al-Saadi
AFP/Getty Images
A young Iraqi holds a national flag in front of security forces as thousands gather in Baghdad on March 4 to protest corruption, unemployment and poor public services. After cracking down on earlier protests, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has changed his tone.

While protests in the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi towns have been small compared with elsewhere in the Arab world, they have shaken the government of Nouri al-Maliki.

The Iraqi prime minister at first reacted like strongmen who have ruled Iraq in the past — with violence. But now he has softened his approach.

'Thirsty To Get Their Liberties'

One of the first demonstrations, labeled the "Day of Rage," brought several thousand protesters, chanting "unjust, unjust," into the streets of Baghdad two weeks ago. Hana Edwar, a small woman with gray hair, was one of the organizers of the protests.

"People are thirsty to get their liberties, to get their dignity and to have a dignified and peaceful life," she said.

The protesters — most of them on the younger side — were angry about the corruption they see in Maliki's government and the lack of government services. Eight years of war has left Iraq's cities — especially Baghdad — ravaged, crumbling and filthy. Maliki has led the government for five years now, and he has little to show for it.

When protesters like Edwar are asked why they have come out into the street, they cite a long list of complaints.

"The suffering of all Iraqis, the deteriorating of their living conditions, the attacks on the freedoms and public liberties," Edwar said. "Also, when we have seen the failure of the public services and so on."

A Crackdown On Protesters, Journalists

Initially, Maliki reacted harshly. During the demonstrations on Feb. 25, riot police attacked the crowds. People were killed. Although it's hard to get an accurate account, it seems that more than 20 died.

Then the government started picking up people, concentrating on political activists and journalists. Offices were ransacked. Individuals were beaten in jail.

And yet, the demonstrations continued — they called it a "Day of Regret" last week, and smaller crowds have gathered this week to continue the protests.

This kind of political action is new to Iraq, and it has sent a shockwave through Maliki's government, said Hussein al Jaff, a columnist at the daily newspaper Brotherhood.

"There are very strong threats now which put their pressure on the government," he said. "All the members are now frightened by this sudden movement of the young people."

A Political Challenge

At the same time, Maliki is faced with a challenge from within the Iraqi political class. The last parliamentary elections were held a year ago, and Maliki's party polled second, just two seats behind another former prime minister, Ayad Allawi.

It took 10 months for a government to be formed, and Maliki offered to create a new National Committee for Strategic Policies and put Allawi in the chairman's seat.

But last week Allawi rejected that offer, saying publicly on Al-Jazeera English that there is no real power-sharing with Maliki and no trust.

"We don't really have a democratic process," he said. "It's a big lie if we say that we do. We don't. And we have a political process, yes. We have a political process which is not inclusive."

Allawi's bloc represents mostly the Sunni minority in Iraq, while Maliki's is a coalition of Shiite parties. Allawi's bloc remains in the Parliament, and many of its members are committed to making the government work. But Allawi said the prime minister had failed the people of Iraq.

"Because of the failure of the government and because of the failure of Mr. Maliki, we see the people are going into the streets," Allawi said.

A Change In Tone

Now Maliki appears to have changed his tone. He has given his government 100 days to clean up its act and show the public the government can provide basic services.

On Thursday, Maliki appeared before the Parliament and conceded that protests do not threaten democracy. Only dictatorships fear protesters, he said, but some of the protesters attacked the police.

"We reject the attacks that took place against protesters and especially against journalists," he said. "But we also reject the acts of some infiltrators who attacked the security forces. If we apologize for the attacks against the protesters and journalists, who will apologize for the attacks against the security forces?"

Maliki noted that the whole Arab world is asking for freedom. In Iraq, he said, that demand has been achieved. Now it has to be defended.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.