Iraq attempts to defuse huge protest planned for Friday

Iraqi officials warned that the protest, which organizers hope will draw 1 million people, could turn violent in what was widely seen as an attempt to limit turnout.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Iraqi security forces stand guard while protesters chant antigovernment slogans during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 23. Protesters gathered in central Baghdad to demand a crackdown on corruption, better government services, and an end to repression.

Iraqi security forces blanketed the streets of Iraq's capital on Wednesday, as officials used tactics including media intimidation and warnings of violence in an apparent attempt to defuse a major demonstration planned for Friday.

An Iraqi organization that monitors press freedom said uniformed Iraqi Army soldiers raided their offices early Wednesday, removing computers and files about attacks on journalists in what it called an attempt to intimidate the Iraqi media ahead of the protest.

Organizers from a cross-section of Iraqi society are calling for a million people to gather in Baghdad to demand a crackdown on corruption, better government services, and an end to repression.

Iraqi officials say they welcome any peaceful protests. But in what was widely seen as an attempt to limit turnout, Baghdad’s security spokesman warned that anyone attending could be in danger.

“We have confirmed intelligence and information about terrorist plans to target the demonstrators in different ways – explosive vests, car bombs, snipers and pistols with silencers,” Gen. Qassim al-Atta told reporters Tuesday evening, in what was widely seen as an attempt to limit turnout.

The only confirmed attacks on demonstrators during daily demonstrations so far have been linked to government security forces, including the stabbing of a several demonstrators in Baghdad on Sunday. Iraqi security officials deny any knowledge of the attack.

A statement by hardline cleric Muqtada al-Sadr advising Iraqis to wait for an assessment of government services is expected to further dampen participation in Friday’s protest.

Laptops, files stolen from press-freedom group

In the small offices of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in central Baghdad, the locks on the doors had been broken, hard drives removed from computers, and furniture overturned after Iraqi security forces entered the building overnight.

Project manager Bashar al-Mandalawy says the security guard who reported the break-in said Iraqi soldiers in Humvees had turned up at about 2 a.m., smashing the locks and then removing laptops, other computer equipment, cameras, and paper files.

“The only reason behind this is to stop freedom of the press and expression in this country,” says Mr. Mandalawy. On the weekend, an independent television station in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya was set on fire and heavily damaged in apparent retaliation for airing footage of antigovernment demonstrations in the Kurdish city.

Streets, bridges closed

Not far from Baghdad's Green Zone in the Salhiyah neighborhood, where residents have held regular protests demanding to be given the apartments they’re renting, dozens of Iraqi Army Humvees and police trucks lined the main street today. Federal policemen manned guns mounted on the backs of police pickup trucks.

Major streets and bridges were closed – some suddenly listed as under renovation.

In the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq, several thousand people gathered peacefully on Tuesday in what appeared to be the largest demonstration in Iraq since protests began sweeping the Arab world. In Iraq as in elsewhere, much of the anger has been focused on corruption and poverty.

Estimates placed the number of demonstrators in Suleymania at between 3,000 and 5,000 – all demanding political and economic reform. Their numbers have grown since a young protester was shot dead by Kurdish security forces at a demonstration last week.

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