The rumors of Iraq’s first case of self-immolation to protest poor services and corrupt government proved not to be true on Sunday.
But the growing discontent in Iraq – inspired by people power protests in Tunisia and Egypt that were both galvanized by protesters setting themselves alight – is such that an Iraqi policeman posted in Baghdad’s downtown Firdous Square on Sunday knew the question he was being asked, even before it was finished.
“There is news that someone…” an Iraqi journalist asked.
“… tried to burn himself?” interrupted the policeman, who had been on the square since dawn. “It’s a lie.”
With their televisions set to 24-hour coverage of the turmoil in Egypt, Iraqis have mounted a number of modest protests in recent days against power, water, and food shortages. On Thursday, police opened fire on demonstrators in the southern city of Diwaniya, wounding three.
A grinding refrain from Iraqis for years has been that their government fails them, a complaint that is echoing louder now as popular anger rises against Arab regimes across the Middle East.
“It will happen in Iraq,” says Mohammad Ali, a trained economist and former policeman, now unemployed for nearly five years, speaking in central Baghdad. “The government is doing nothing for us.”
Clerics warn leaders to heed lessons of Egypt
Senior clerics warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to heed the lessons of a region in turmoil.
“A lot has changed in Iraq…but there is no social justice,” said Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, during his Friday sermon in the Shiite religious center of Karbala. The representative of Iraq’s most influential theologian, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said politicians should put public issues ahead of personal ones.
“There are many outstanding issues – we are not sure what happened in Arab countries will not happen in Iraq, even though it is a democracy,” he said, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse.
An imam in the northern city of Kirkuk issued a similar warning: “It started in North Africa and it will not end,” said Sheikh Mohammad al-Juburi. “Iraq’s politicians must take care to serve their people…. We may see a spark in Iraq just like the spark sweeping [other] Arab countries.”
Government scurries to take preventive measures
The Iraqi government – finally formed in December after nine months of haggling, after inconclusive elections last year – appears to be listening, and taking preventive steps.
Over the weekend, it was announced that Mr. Maliki would give up half his $360,000 salary, and he also stated that he would not run for a third term in 2014.
On Sunday, in recognition of Iraqi hardship, Maliki announced that every Iraqi citizen would receive a cash hand-out 15,000 Iraqi dinars – roughly $12.70 – along with their monthly food ration.
'No jobs, no services'
Eight years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis still have only a few hours of electricity a day. Protests at the shortages last June during a heat wave left two dead.
“It can happen here, because we have no jobs, no services,” says Ayad Ali, an employee of the Ministry of Interior. “This is a new government, and we will watch them the whole time, for four years. [But] even if we go to demonstrate, do we have another choice? It will be the same people.”
“Egypt has already inspired Iraqis,” says Nawfal Jabbar, an accountant in an upscale bathroom fittings shop in Baghdad. “That is why we are watching Egypt so carefully, because we really want change.
“I am very happy for the Egyptians, they should demand their rights – this is democracy,” says Mr. Jabbar. But he doesn’t expect such a radical result in Iraq, because in “the people themselves chose the government. If they want to punish it, they will not vote for it again.”
Despite the clerical warnings, there is also a degree of resignation among Iraqis that corruption and misrule will continue to dog their daily lives. At a central Baghdad checkpoint, one car was asked to pull over for a detailed check, by a policeman mindlessly waving a bomb detection wand.
When a passenger pointed out to a second police officer that the first had no reason to stop him, he was told: “Dear brother, you know it better than me, that the whole country is built on lies – from the very top.”