February 24, 2011
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister warned his people to boycott an anti-government protest planned for Friday, saying it was being organized by supporters of the ousted Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave no proof for his assertion in a nationally televised speech Thursday, which echoed similar blanket statements he has made before blaming terrorists and Saddam loyalists for an array of problems in the country.
Religious figures including anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the leader of Iraq's majority Shiite community also have raised doubts about the rally.
Al-Maliki's warning came around the same time a suicide bomber killed 11 people northeast of Baghdad, an official in Anbar province said.
The warning was another sign of concern that the anti-government uprisings sweeping the Middle East will buffet Iraq as well. The organizers of the demonstrations Friday are calling for a "Day of Rage" on Facebook and other websites.
So far, Iraqis have held several small-scale protests around the country Ś occasionally punctuated by violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators Ś demanding better public services, more assistance for widows and orphans and greater protection for human rights. But unlike protests in the wider Middle East, they have generally not called for a complete change in government. Iraq is one of the few countries in the region where officials are democratically elected.
"I call on you to be cautious and careful and stay away from this (event)," al-Maliki said of Friday's march.
He said that he did not want to deprive Iraqis of their right to protest legitimate demands, but wanted it to happen with someone other than "Saddamists, terrorists and al-Qaida" standing behind the march.
"Frankly speaking, they are planning to take advantage of tomorrow's demonstration for their own benefit," he said.
The Iraqi government routinely allows mass religious events, such as Shiite religious processions, to take place although they are repeatedly targeted by terrorists.
Iraqis planning to take part in the protest march scoffed at the warning.
"Although there are security and religious pressures on us to not participate in the demo tomorrow, we will," said Omar al-Mashhadani, an activist with the al-Nahrian relief organization. "Our aim is not to topple the regime but to make reforms and fight corruption."
In recent days, Iraqi officials have sounded a drumbeat of warnings that appeared designed to scare people from taking part in the protest, and painting those who do in a bad light.
By late Thursday, the area around Baghdad's Liberation Square where the protesters were to assemble assumed the air of a military camp preparing to do battle. All the streets leading up to the square had been blocked off and truckloads of riot police could be seen donning helmets and grasping shields.
Every side street for hundreds of meters around the square was blocked off with razor wire, and security vehicles parked on the street.
The Interior Ministry warned demonstrators Thursday that people trying to incite violence may put on police or army uniforms and infiltrate the crowd.
Representatives of al-Sadr have discouraged their members from turning out. An official close to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's Shiite leader, said there are serious safety concerns. He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Those two positions virtually assure that a wide spectrum of the Shiite community will not participate in the rallies.
An U.S. Embassy spokesman, speaking on Iraqi television before al-Maliki's announcement, said Washington supports Iraqis' right to express their political views and pointed out that Iraq's leadership had instructed security forces to refrain from using force against peaceful protesters.
"We hope that the demonstrations will be peaceful and a powerful affirmation of Iraqi democracy," said Aaron Snipe.
As tension heightened around the protest, a suicide bomber trying to assassinate the deputy governor of Anbar province killed 11 people Thursday, said the Chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, Jasim al-Halbusi. He said the man wearing an explosives vest blew himself up near a convoy carrying the deputy governor outside of a sports stadium in Ramadi.
Al-Halbusi said seven policemen and a bodyguard were among those killed in the attack. The deputy governor was slightly injured, al-Halbusi said.
Earlier Thursday, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush was forcibly detained by the Iraqi army after making what is believed to be his first public visit to his homeland after being freed from prison.
One of Muntadhar al-Zeidi's brothers said the reporter returned to take part in Friday's rally.
Al-Zeidi became a celebrity in the Arab world after throwing his shoes at Bush during a news conference and calling him a dog. Released from an Iraqi prison after serving a criminal sentence, he eventually left the country in 2009 and has not appeared publicly in Iraq since then.
Witnesses saw al-Zeidi being forcibly led away by Iraqi Army soldiers during a visit to a Baghdad neighbourhood.
Associated Press photographer Hadi Mizban contributed to this report.