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Baghdad cracks down on protests as Iraq democracy falters

Over the weekend, Iraq's government banned protests against the lavish pensions given to lawmakers, in the latest evidence that Iraqi democracy has struggled to take root.

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Two and a half years later, Iraqi officials still appear concerned about demonstrations. The Iraqi Constitution, which is often ignored in matters of policy, theoretically guarantees freedom of assembly. There are no clear laws determining who has the authority to provide demonstrators with a permit. Officials at the Ministry of Interior recently remarked that they have the sole power to grant such permits; this assertion is not supported by any known laws, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Organizers for last weekend’s protests applied for a permit with the Ministry of Interior but were denied. Some government officials claimed they supported the protesters’ demands, but could not allow demonstrations that lacked permits.

“The protesters didn’t follow the orders of the Ministry of Interior and they broke the rules, so the security forces had to take into consideration such violations. We will respond to all protest demands and resolve them soon,” says Khalid Al-Asadi, a member of parliament.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s decision and called on authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations. Human Rights Watch wrote that the government’s “concern seems that protests will be politically embarrassing or inconvenient,” rather than an honest fear of violence.

The organizers of Saturday’s protest say they will challenge security measures to exercise their right to freedom of speech.

“People are fed up with the situation 10 years after the invasion. Iraq is moving backward, not forward. People are disappointed with the government,” says Ahmad Ibrahim, one of the organizers.

Strengthening Iraqi democracy was a key component of the American-led reconstruction effort after the 2003 invasion. Of the slightly more than $60 billion spent on Iraq’s reconstruction, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s final report described “securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow” as the “foundational rationales” of the overall US effort.

By September 2012, the US had spent $1.82 billion on programs directly related to democratic governance and civil society.

“The Americans really did not do the things that should be done. When we speak about the democratic system, it is not only going to vote and to put your voice on the ballot paper. This is not enough,” says Hanaa Edwar, a human rights and civil society activist in Baghdad. “How to respect human rights in this country is the core issue for democracy. It is also how to make dialogue with everyone, how to accept others. The Americans didn’t put the basis for that.”

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