Iraqis stage Valentine's Day protest over government corruption, poor services

The Valentine's Day protest came amid reports of a man in northern Iraq killing himself in an apparent copycat self-immolation – the same dramatic act that galvanized popular discontent in Tunisia.

Karim Kadim/AP Photo
Protesters chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Feb. 14. Hundreds of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad against corruption and the lack of government services that have plagued this country for years. The banners in Arabic read, "Iraqis oil wealth must go people and not to thieves" and "From us love and from you hatred" and "A lawmaker's salary can meet 500 widows' needs."

Several hundred Iraqi activists marked Valentine's Day with a protest for better services and governance in Baghdad on Monday, the latest in a series of small demonstrations across Iraq inspired by protester-driven upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia.

While most protesters here aren't aiming to topple the government – one that Iraqis voted for, despite its imperfections – they continue to complain of chronic corruption and lack of services.

"It's time for the government elected by the people to keep its promises and deliver," says Nour al-Qaisi, a journalist and student who held a cloth red rose in her hand as she marched.

Political deadlock meant that Iraqis waited nine months after elections last March for a new government to be formed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Eight new ministers were approved by Iraq's parliament only on Sunday, and key security and intelligence portfolios still await appointments.

"We know many members of parliament and high-ranking officials make up to [$75,000] per month, while many poor Iraqis can hardly put bread in their mouths," says Ms. Qaisi. "I am here to demand the rights of my people."

Protesters gathered across the Tigris River from the Green Zone, carrying signs and chanting for reform. The crowd raised their voices especially loud at the words: "Oh my homeland! They are all thieves!"

Police and soldiers looked on without incident. The Jumhuriya Bridge, which connects the site of the protest at Tahrir Square to a road adjacent to the Green Zone, has been blocked for three days. Activists are planning an "Iraqi Day of Rage" here on Feb. 25.

"Today we have a message for our government: First Tunis, second Cairo, and third Baghdad," says Ahmed Jabbar, a young teacher of fine arts who joined the protests.

Reports of copycat self-immolation

The protest came as Iraqi newspapers on Monday carried reports of a man from the northern city of Mosul killing himself in an apparent copycat self-immolation – the same dramatic act of protest that galvanized popular discontent in northern Africa.

The man, Abdulmunir Mohammed, had "been complaining of the continuous state of unemployment," his father was quoted as saying in the Al-Sabah al-Jadeed newspaper. The father of four, it reported, had set himself alight after saying he was going to light a kerosene heater. A "security source" told the newspaper the man's death was a "suicide."

However, a neighbor raised doubts whether the death was an act of self-immolation, according to a local source speaking to the Monitor. Still, many Iraqis – at the Baghdad rally and elsewhere – believed it was a suicide in protest over the government's inability to provide opportunities for youths.

The self-immolation was an "alarm" for the government, says the young teacher Mr. Jabbar. "They have to wake up and take care of everything and repair all their policies.... This is the first time we [Iraqis] feel something for change. Tomorrow and the next day there will be more and more."

'Winds of change' keep blowing

Protests are gaining momentum in Algeria and Yemen. And in Iran on Monday, members of the opposition Green Movement began going onto the streets for the first time in a year.

The Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to prevent it with a series of preemptive arrests and threatening statements – despite praising and encouraging unrest in Egypt and Tunisia as part of an Islamic "awakening" around the world – and there were reports of clashes by mid-afternoon in Tehran.

But Iraq has seen an increasing number of small protests, and several steps by the government in reply. As the Egyptian demonstrations reached their peak in violence and then numbers in the past couple weeks, Mr. Maliki promised to cut his $360,000 annual salary in half, saying that “high salaries may create unrest in society and lead to the creation of two classes, the rich and the disadvantaged.”

A new commission has been set up to examine the salaries of top officials. Maliki also ordered that all Iraqis would receive cash handouts of almost $13 each.

Iraqis resent lack of services

Iraq already experienced it own regime change at the hands of the US military in 2003. The subsequent violence and insurgency tore at what remained of Iraq's threadbare social fabric after decades of dictatorial rule by Saddam Hussein.

Resignation by Iraqis over poor services is such that in recent days, during a spate of cold weather, Iraqis joked that if anyone burned themselves in protest, their fellow Iraqis would huddle around them to keep warm, because they had no electricity for heat at home.

"It's not just Baghdad, but everywhere in Iraq, and everyday there are strikes. It's a very positive spirit," says Hanaa Edwar, the head of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, which deals with human rights issues.

"We are demonstrating on the day of love, to ensure solidarity with young people for change," said Ms. Edwar, as she marched with a red cloth flower on the lapel of her jacket.

"It is a great inspiration to us, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt – we need to really correct the process in Iraq," adds Edwar. The government is "afraid. You can see it from the positions they are taking."

Sahar Issa contributed reporting in Baghdad.

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