Update on Iraq: Not quite freedom on the march

The crackdown on political protest in Iraq, from Baghdad to autonomous Kurdistan, shows that the country is far from a flourishing democracy.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama leads guests to a toast as he hosts a dinner for a select group of veterans and officials involved with the Iraq war at the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

Toward the end of February, Iraqis took to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of their own – ultimately unrealized – attempt at starting an uprising against a corrupt, increasingly authoritarian political order. 

What happened?

Those efforts, in imitation of the uprisings that upended the political orders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, were shot down by the country's security services.

"Security forces blocked access to protest sites in Baghdad; beat and arrested peaceful demonstrators in Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan; and briefly detained, beat, or confiscated equipment from media workers and prevented others from covering the protests," according to Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile for the US, the expensive and bloody Iraq war is already a fading memory.

On Wednesday President Obama hosted a dinner for a select group of veterans and officials involved with the Iraq war. "The nation's gratitude dinner," remembered the more than 4,000 soldiers who died, the thousands more who lost limbs and suffered permanent injury, and the sacrifices made by the families at home.

Obama called the men and women who fought in Iraq "the patriots who served in our name." He went on to say that "after nearly nine years in Iraq, tonight is an opportunity to express our gratitude and to say once more, welcome home."

But the stated purposes that war was fought – to remove Saddam Hussein from power and bring democracy to Iraq – is far from fulfilled. Sure, Mr. Hussein is gone, hung by his own people after being captured by US troops. But a flourishing democracy, Iraq is not.

Take Kurdistan, the pro-American ethnic enclave that was protected by a NATO no-fly zone from Hussein's troops in the '90s and has often been held up as a model by US policy makers about what all of Iraq could become. On Feb. 17, a few hundred democracy protesters sought to gather in Sulaymaniyah. Here's what happened next, according to Human Rights Watch:

"Within 10 minutes, hundreds more security forces surrounded and filled the square, and dozens of men in civilian clothing approached the protesters and began to punch, kick, and strike them with wooden batons, protesters and journalists told Human Rights Watch. The men forced many of the protesters to one side of the square, next to a former police station that was used as a temporary security headquarters for the protests. There, security forces detained protesters inside the building."

A gathering of Arab Iraqis in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Feb. 25 were received with only a slightly less thuggish show of force.

"As protesters approached the multiple checkpoints surrounding Tahrir Square set up that morning, security forces informed them that they had a long list of protesters whom they had orders to arrest and that they would check this list against the identification cards of anyone wishing to pass through. A young activist who did not want his name used for fear of government reprisal told Human Rights Watch that one smiling soldier told him and other protesters, 'We may have your name. Why don’t you step forward and see if you get arrested?'"

Iraq's Constitution formally guarantees the rights of free speech and assembly, but in practice it's generally ignored.

The Committee to Protect Journalists rated Iraq the worst country in its "impunity index" for last year, which measures how a national legal system does, or does not, protect reporters. Five reporters were killed across the country in 2011 and 150 have been killed there since 2003. Last year, 26 journalists were detained by the authorities for their work. The CPJ says that there has not yet been a conviction in any of those cases.

"As demonstrations for economic and political reform spread with the Arab uprisings (in 2011), journalists were consistently targeted for their coverage. Anti-riot police attacked, detained, and assaulted journalists covering protests," the CPJ reports. "In their attempt to restrict coverage of the unrest, police raided news stations and press freedom groups, destroyed equipment, and arrested journalists. In Iraqi Kurdistan, authorities used aggression and intimidation to restrict journalists' coverage of violent clashes between security forces and protesters."

Just how bad is the state of the press in Iraq? The CPJ's impunity index ranks Iraq as nearly four times worse than number two on the list, Somalia.

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