Dozens of Iraqis in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square rallied on Saturday to demand reforms, on the first anniversary of demonstrations in which 16 people were killed in clashes with security forces.
The number of protesters was a far cry from the turn-out a year ago, when thousands took to the streets of Baghdad and at least 16 other cities to decry official corruption, poor basic services and high unemployment.
This year, just two demonstrations were held in major cities — the other being in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
In the capital, around 50 demonstrators held signs with slogans such as “oil is for the people, not for thieves,” and “Maliki’s government is a failure,” referring to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Some also held up small empty barrels to represent demands to distribute revenue from Iraq’s rich oil resources.
Security forces were heavily deployed in Tahrir, surrounding the area where the protesters were and searching people as they entered.
“It has been a year since the first protest, and during this period, none of our demands have been met,” said Siham al-Zubaidi, a 42-year-old NGO worker.
“Our demands are simple — safety, electricity and more jobs.”
“This protest is organised by simple Iraqis and by a group of hungry people. We will keep protesting every Friday until we go to the Green Zone and take them (the officials) out of it,” she said, referring to the heavily fortified area across the river from Tahrir where Iraq’s government is based.
Iraq “is a rich country with poor people,” she said.
Naama Wahid, a 47-year-old unemployed man, sid “the security forces are not here to protect us, but to protect the Green Zone and whose who live in it.”
“We call on Iraqis to wake up and to demand their rights.”
According to an AFP photographer, the demonstrators had marched from the Mutannabi Street area of central Baghdad to Tahrir.
About 40 activists also turned out in Najaf, calling for more basic services and better ration provisions in a protest that lasted about two hours.
There were no demonstrations in the provincial capitals of Salaheddin, Babil, Anbar, Basra, Kirkuk, Diyala, Sulaimaniyah or Wasit provinces, all of which were rocked by them last year.
On February 25, 2011, 16 people died and more than 130 were wounded in clashes with police across Iraq.
Two days later, Maliki gave his cabinet 100 days to improve the delivery of services to Iraq’s people or face “changes,” but no one was ever fired.
In January, Human Rights Watch said Iraq is falling back into authoritarianism and headed towards becoming a police state.
“Iraq cracked down harshly during 2011 on freedom of expression and assembly by intimidating, beating and detaining activists, demonstrators and journalists,” HRW said.